Jet fuel prices have hit six-year highs.  One reason for the increase is unique properties of US shale that refiners have to deal with when refining the plentiful crude.  Alaska Airlines photo.

Rise in use of kerosene to offset waxiness in US shale boosting jet fuel prices

Jet fuel prices have hit six-year highs, mostly due to unique properties of US shale that refiners have to deal with when refining the plentiful fossil fuel.

In 2017, the United States produced about 4.7 million barrels per day (b/d) of crude from shale formations.  Refiners have used that crude to manufacture diesel, gasoline and jet fuel.

According to Reuters, shale oil is younger than some other types of crude and it differs somewhat from oil from other formations.  John Jechura, professor of chemical engineering at Colorado School of Mines, told Reuters that shale is a bit “waxier”.

To offset that waxiness when making diesel, refiners can add kerosene and other components found in jet fuel to make the fuel useable for truck and car engines, market sources told Reuters.

Using these components cuts the available pool of jet fuel at a time when economic growth in the US has helped increase air travel.  As well, not all refiners can make jet fuel.  And, those that do manufacture jet fuel also make diesel, which is also in high demand now.

“Some jet fuel has been diverted to the diesel pool because diesel demand is quite strong this year in the U.S., particularly on the East Coast,” Amrit Naresh, global distillate analyst at ESAI Energy told Reuters.

In April, jet fuel prices rose substantially, and, on April 20 were 4.50 cents/gallon above the ultra-low sulphur diesel futures benchmark on the New York Mercantile Exchange.  This is the highest since December 2014, excluding a spike last year after Hurricane Harvey.

Traders tell Reuters jet fuel last traded at 0.75 cents above futures and prices have not been this high in June since 2012.  Diesel futures are trading at about $2.15/gallon while jet fuel is at $2.16/gallon.

The rise in prices comes at a time when US airlines report they expect 3.7 per cent more passengers than last year, according to Airlines for America, an industry group.

Despite more customers, the rising cost of jet fuel is squeezing airline profits.  On Monday, the International Air Transport Association forecast airlines’ combined profits will be 12 per cent less than was forecast in December.  This is mostly due to the rising price of jet fuel.

In March 2018, US production of kerosene-type jet fuel hit almost 1.78 million b/d, according to US Energy Information Administration data.  However, jet fuel imports fell in the first quarter of this year and unplanned shutdowns at East Coast refineries also helped boost jet fuel costs in 2018.

Refiners have found it more profitable to make diesel fuel now because regulatory costs tied to diesel have dropped, according to Neil Earnest, president of consulting company Muse, Stancil & Co. in Dallas.