WASHINGTON — A push from Congress and the White House for huge increases in biofuels such as ethanol, is prompting the oil industry to scale back its plans for refinery expansions — which could keep gasoline prices high, possibly for years to come.
With President Bush calling for a 20 percent drop in gasoline use and the Senate now debating legislation for huge increases in ethanol production, oil companies see growing uncertainty about future gasoline demand and little need to expand refineries or build new ones.
- Number of U.S. refineries: 149
- U.S. refinery gasoline production: 136 million gallons a day.
- Gasoline demand: 143 million gallons a day (imports make up the difference)
- Annual ethanol production today: 5 billion gallons
Oil industry executives no longer believe there will be the demand for gasoline over the next decade to warrant the billions of dollars in refinery expansions — as much as 10 percent increase in new refining capacity — they anticipated as recently as a year ago.
Biofuels such as ethanol and efforts to get automakers to build more fuel-efficient cars and SUVs have been portrayed as key to countering high gasoline prices, but it is likely to do little to curb costs at the pump today or in the years ahead as refiners reduce gasoline production.
A shortage of refineries has frequently been blamed by politicians for the sharp price spikes in gasoline, as was the case last week by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. during debate on a Senate energy bill.
“The fact is that Americans are paying more at the pump because we do not have the domestic capacity to refine the fuels consumers demand,” Inhofe said as he tried unsuccessfully to get into the bill a proposal to ease permitting and environmental rules for refineries.
This spring, refiners, hampered by outages, could not keep up with demand and imports were down because of greater fuel demand in Europe and elsewhere. Despite stable — even sometimes declining — oil prices, gasoline prices soared to record levels and remain well above $3 a gallon.
Only last year, the Energy Department was told that refiners, reaping big profits and anticipating growing demand, were looking at boosting their refining capacity by more than 1.6 million barrels a day, a roughly 10 percent increase. That would be enough to produce an additional 37 million gallons of gasoline daily.
But oil companies already have scaled those expansion plans back by nearly 40 percent. More cancellations are expected if Congress passes legislation now before the Senate calling for 15 billion gallons of ethanol use by 2015 and more than double that by 2022, say industry and government officials.
“These (expansion) decisions are being revisited in boardrooms across the refining sector,” said Charlie Drevna, executive vice president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association.
In 2006, motorists used 143 billion gallons of gasoline, of which 136 billion was produced by U.S. refineries, and the rest imported.
Drevna, the industry lobbyist, said annual demand had been expected to grow to about 161 billion gallons by 2017. But Bush’s call to cut gasoline demand by 20 percent — through a combination of fuel efficiency improvements and ethanol — would reduce that demand below what U.S. refineries make today, he said.
“We will end up exporting gasoline,” Drevna said.
Asked recently whether Chevron Corp. might build a new refinery, vice chairman Peter Robertson replied, “Why would I invest in a refinery when you’re trying to make 20 percent of the gasoline supply ethanol?”
Valero Corp., the nation’s largest refiner, producing 3.3 million barrels a day of petroleum product, recently boosted production capacity at its Port Arthur, Texas, refinery by 325,000 barrels a day. But company spokesman Bill Day said some additional expansions have been postponed.
“That’s not to say we’ve change our plans,” Day said. “But it’s fair to say we’re taking a closer look at what the president is saying and what Congress is saying” about biofuels. He said there’s a “mixed message” coming out of Washington, calling for more production but also for reducing gasoline demand.”