The US for the first time is pushing more crude and refined petroleum products into Latin America than it brings back, signalling a change in the global trade map that could be tested if president Donald Trump introduces border taxes.
The scales tipped in favour of the US in October, when it recorded a surplus of 89,000 barrels a day of petroleum, the first gain for the US since records began in 1993, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).
In November, the surplus grew to 184,000 barrels a day, the EIA said on Tuesday. That compares to a 4.3 million barrel deficit in 2005.
The change comes as Latin America, led by Mexico, is importing unusually large amounts of gasoline as ageing refineries fail to keep up with soaring demand.
At the same time, the region’s output of heavy crude – once a staple for US refiners – is declining just as Canada’s production is on the rise.
“As the US Gulf has looked for a destination for its swelling supply, Mexico has been a more than willing recipient in the last year, taking in nearly a third more gasoline in 2016 than in the year prior,” said Matthew Smith, director of commodity research at ClipperData, a New York-based consultant that tracks global oil flows.
“This appears to be more of a longer-term trend than a blip.”
With the US shale boom reinvigorated by prices above $50 a barrel, the surplus is likely to continue, though the US president’s statements about trade with Mexico have added a level of uncertainty to the future.
Last week, Mr Trump’s administration floated the idea of a 20 per cent border adjustment tax to pay for his planned wall along America’s southern edge. A spokesman for Petróleos Mexicanos, Mexico’s state-run oil monopoly, has said the company is already seeking to diversify its shipments away from the US.
Mexico now relies on US gasoline for more than half its consumption, up from 20-30 per cent in early 2014. Meanwhile, Canada last year displaced Mexico and Venezuela as a leading exporter of heavy crude into the US, with the promise of more interaction ahead as new pipelines are completed.
Another factor supporting a surplus is the rising use of light, sweet crude from US shale fields imported into the region to serve as a blending agent.
Oil output in Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia and Argentina fell last year as low prices accelerated the natural decline of ageing fields. Only Brazil posted an annual production increase, according to data from the
International Energy Agency
The slumps in production were paired with lower availability of refining capacity in those countries and lower subsidised fuel prices, which created more demand for US products such as gasoline and diesel, according to Ixchel Castro, an expert on Latin America at consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
“The lower prices allowed demand to pick up in some of these countries before the prices were liberalised,” Ms Castro said from Mexico City. “The other side of the story is the refinery capacity utilisation in 2016 is the lowest we’ve seen since 2012.”