U.S. SEIZED SAUDI
As the US raced over the past five years toward becoming a global petroleum powerhouse, the world's biggest oil exporter Saudi Arabia quietly seized a market milestone from America: the largest source of peak summer demand.
From June through August, when temperatures in Riyadh routinely rise above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), Saudi Arabia diverts as much as a tenth of its crude output to fuel power plants that run full tilt to meet surging demand from air conditioners.
The result is that Saudi Arabia's winter-to-summer "swing" in oil consumption has eclipsed that of the United States, where gasoline consumption jumps by as much as 10 percent every summer as millions of families take advantage of school holidays and warm weather to embark on the classic American road trip.
This May 23-25 Memorial Day weekend, however, that trend may begin to reverse as the most Americans in a decade will fill up their gas tanks and rev up their engines for highway holidays, taking advantage of lower gasoline prices and a growing economy.
The American Automobile Association predicts a 5.3 percent rise in Memorial Day car travel to the highest level in 10 years. The boost at the pumps will add to already strong demand for gasoline after years of diminishing use because of a switch to more fuel-efficient cars.
"The fall in prices is trumping the efficiency gains for the summer," says Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at Energy Aspects.
Saudi Arabia is likely to maintain or even extend its use of domestic crude and fuel in power plants this summer, according to Sen and other analysts. Yet the country appears to be making some progress toward slowing its dependence on one of the most costly forms of electricity.
There is growing debate in Saudi Arabia over higher power tariffs that might curb wasteful use, and a younger generation of Saudis are coming of age in an era of conservation, says Professor Paul Stevens, a Senior Research Fellow for Energy at Chatham House who co-authored a 2011 report on the issue.
Saudi use of oil for power will be "continually growing, but not at the sort of growth rates of the past 10 years," Stevens said.
The surge in summer demand this year will have an even greater significance for global oil prices than usual, as bullish traders are counting on it to help drain inventories that swelled at a rate of more than 1.5 million barrels per day in the first half of this year.
In the United States, gasoline demand is expected to grow by about 524,000 bpd between the first quarter and the June-August period, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, although some analysts expect more.
Saudi Arabia's peak crude oil burn rate is likely to top 900,000 bpd this summer, analysts say, up from around 350,000 bpd in winter, according to the Joint Oil Data Initiative.
But consumption of refined fuels such as diesel, some of which is also used in power plants, also surges in summer, taking the total seasonal swing to around 1.2 million bpd, a 50 percent jump in domestic demand.
SAUDI POWER FIX
Saudi Arabia's power challenge began a decade ago as high hopes for a booming domestic natural gas industry began to fizzle just as rising oil prices fueled an economic upturn, both from wealthier citizens and a small but growing industrial base.
In the 10 years to 2012, total power generation more than doubled, with two-thirds of the growth met by burning oil. To meet the surge at the peak of summer, Saudi Arabia, home to approximately 16 percent of all crude oil reserves, has simply pumped additional crude to use at home.
That may be more of a problem this year. The Kingdom had already ramped up production to a record 10.3 million bpd in March, nearing its maximum 12.5 million bpd capacity, and is turning down requests from Chinese buyers for extra supplies, senior Chinese oil traders said.
Beyond this year's strain, however, there may be hope.
Last year, the Kingdom saved just 9 million barrels, about 25,000 bpd, from its "Peak Seasonal Production" program started in 2010 to reduce summer crude burn.
And Saudi Aramco hopes to start up its vast Wasit Gas Plant, increasing the country's processing capacity by 40 percent and feeding a new 750 megawatt cogeneration plant. The plant, however, is not expected to run at full until 2016.
In the United States, the swing in highway travel has been around about as long as the automobile. Last year, Americans drove more than 1 billion more miles a day in the peak summer months than in winter, a swing of some 14 percent, according to Department of Transportation mileage data.
Highway activity is also likely to be substantial this year because fuel prices are $1 lower than a year ago (although about 70 cents higher than in January) and employment levels are the highest since 2008. The response is already apparent in first quarter data, with miles-driven jumping 3.9 percent to the highest on record, government data show.
More than one in four Americans will travel longer on holiday this summer, with 86 percent of those going by car, according to a National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) survey.
Road trips are not the only factor, said energy economist Philip Verleger. He argues the period should be known as the "construction season" because the increase in building activity accounts for a larger share of the rise in demand.
U.S. new housing starts jumped 20 percent to their highest level in nearly 7 -1/2 years in April.
In the long term, the relevance of the U.S. driving season seems likely to fade, with lower airfare rates attracting more travelers and stricter fuel efficiency standards curbing use.
Demographics are also playing a role. In 2012, barely half a percent of all 16- to 19-year olds had drivers licenses, the lowest share in records going back 50 years, according to a NACS report.
Getting a license "used to be the primary right of passage for a teenager - now that's more like a Facebook account," said Jeff Lenard, a vice president at NACS. "They can still hang out with friends without leaving the house."
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