Official U.S. government data shows that storage at the key crude oil hub in Cushing, Oklahoma, was just 70% full as of mid-April. Traders say that is bunk - because whatever is left is spoken for by firms sending oil to the hub right now.
Oil prices have crashed this year, with the current U.S. contract falling into negative territory, due to millions of barrels of supply around the globe hitting markets at a time when the coronavirus pandemic means people are not flying on planes or driving in cars.
With demand down 30% worldwide, that leaves buyers of oil few options other than to stick crude in storage, and Cushing is the primary U.S. locale for that. The tank farm has about 76 million barrels of working capacity, and coming into last week about 53 million barrels were being stored there, according to U.S. Energy Department figures.
But while the tanks are not full yet, they are fully leased out to producers and traders who will fill them soon, five trade sources said. That means to anybody looking for a last-minute space - there is not any. As coronavirus keeps people at home and obliterates demand, there is no reason for storage levels to fall.
"The terminals have already contracted their storage 100%," said Ernie Barsamian, chief executive officer of The Tank Tiger, a terminal storage clearinghouse in Princeton, New Jersey.
That realization among traders and funds managers sparked a panic on Monday that caused the expiring May oil contract to crash to minus-$37.63 a barrel, the first time U.S. crude ended in negative territory in history.
"Firms have oil on pipelines on the way to Cushing and thought they had storage tied up and for some reason they didn't," said Phil Verleger, an oil economist and independent consultant.
The American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, said on Tuesday that Cushing inventories rose by 4.9 million barrels as of Friday, putting total stocks at 59.5 million barrels at the hub, leaving space for about 16 million barrels. The energy researcher's data, while not official government data, is more up-to-date than U.S. federal figures.
"We have been forecasting for some weeks that Cushing, Oklahoma would reach tank tops by mid-to-late May," said John Coleman, principal analyst at Wood Mackenzie. "Based on current trajectories, (that) looks to likely to happen in the first half of May instead."
Monday's historical trading in May crude futures was in part a panicked move ahead of its expiration on Tuesday. But June futures nearly repeated that trick on Tuesday, falling 43% to $11.57 a barrel. For now, the contract is in positive territory, but the price is falling because it is not looking like it will be any easier to find storage for barrels, and in fact, it could be harder.
Several major oil companies, including Magellan Midstream Partners, Enterprise Products Partners, and Enbridge inc own tanks at the hub, which they lease out for companies to store their oil. Some traders sublease that space. Barsamian, who brokers these transactions, said all tanks were leased by mid-March, and he has not subleased any space since late in the month.
That came as a shock to the likes of hedge funds who had jumped into the oil contract, only to realize that if they held the contract when it expires, they would be obligated to take the barrels that they do not want.
"I never been contacted by as many hedge funds as I did yesterday looking for storage. I had dozens of emails and phone calls from hedge funds," said Barsamian. "They never really thought about the aspect of the physical delivery."
Flows into Cushing accelerated in the last two weeks after Enterprise Products Partners started shipping on unused pipeline space from the U.S. Gulf Coast to Cushing.
Enterprise and Enbridge declined to comment, citing confidentiality concerns. A Magellan spokesperson said that the company has received significant interest in storage throughout its system, without specifically discussing Cushing.
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