COVID-19 contributed to operational changes at US refineries, EIA reports

Published on September 01, 2020 by Debra Flax

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While demand for transportation fuels has decreased since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. refineries have been forced to reduce their operations to adjust for the changing levels of overall demand for petroleum products, according to a new report.

In Petroleum Supply Monthly, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that demand for motor gasoline and jet fuel, in particular, has fallen to its lowest level in years. The report, which reviewed data from January 2019 to May 2020, showed that refinery runs were 22 percent lower in April 2020 compared with the full year 2019 average of 17.0 million barrels per day (b/d).

Additionally, in 2019, refinery yields for motor oil averaged 46 percent and jet fuel 10 percent. As reported in April, refinery yields for motor oil dropped to 41 percent while jet fuel yields fell to 5 percent.

In response to the disproportionately affected demand on motor gasoline and jet fuel, refineries changed operations to focus more on the production of distillate fuel oil, EIA said. In April, U.S. distillate fuel oil yields increased to a record high of 38 percent. In 2019, refinery yields for distillate fuel oil averaged 30 percent.

In the U.S. Gulf Coast region, the effects of the operational changes were especially felt as distillate fuel oil yields surpassed those of gasoline for the first time, with distillate reaching 40 percent against gasoline reaching 39 percent.

EIA stated that refineries can change their petroleum product output by running downstream units differently. For this report, EIA reviewed the amount of material, also known as fresh feed, that runs through four types of downstream units (catalytic reformers, catalytic crackers, catalytic hydrocrackers, and cokers). Of the four types, catalytic crackers tend to be associated more with motor gasoline production. They operated less than other downstream units in April with the amount of fresh feed processed at a 30 percent lower average than its 2019 average of 4.7 million b/d.

The amount of fresh feed processed through the other three types of downstream units, however, was also reduced at 20 percent lower than the collective average of 6.9 million b/d in 2019.