Border tax ideas roil oil markets, favor Gulf Coast refiners

Fri Jan 27, 2017 6:05pm EST
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By Liz Hampton and Catherine Ngai

HOUSTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - As with many industries now fretting over the uncertain future of U.S. trade policy, the oil business is sizing up the potential impact of the various protectionist measures being bandied about Washington - which have sent crude markets into a tizzy.

The trade proposal with the most momentum may be the controversial tax reform, pushed by Republicans in Congress, that could slap a tax of up to 20 percent on all imports, including crude oil. That would spark a rise in fuel costs across the country that would hurt East and West Coast refiners more than those near the Gulf of Mexico.

It would also hit the pocketbooks of drivers and airline passengers, as refiners pass on the nearly $30 billion that the tax could cost them each year on crude imports.

"The consumer is really the one that suffers," Cynthia Warner, executive vice president for operations at refiner Tesoro Corp (TSO.N: Quote), said earlier this month at a conference in Houston. Tesoro operates seven refineries: two in California, two in North Dakota and one each in Utah, Alaska and Washington.

The "border adjustment" tax could also redraw trade maps for global flows of crude and refined products. U.S. crude producers would be the obvious beneficiaries as their overseas rivals bear heavy taxes on imports, which are used often by coastal refiners, especially those without direct access to U.S. pipelines.

Higher prices for domestic crude would make pumping from more U.S. fields economically viable - encouraging higher output from the shale patch and giving more momentum to a nascent recovery in the U.S. shale industry after a brutal international price war.

While that likely would not put a big dent in the 7.9 million barrels per day (bpd) that the U.S. imports, Goldman Sachs estimates that U.S. oil exploration and production firms would benefit to the tune of $20 billion from higher domestic crude price and increased production.

Crude markets have been buffeted by the public back-and-forth between President Donald Trump and the Republican party over various tax proposals.   Continued...

Dark clouds stretch across a refinery as Hurricane Ike approaches the Gulf of Mexico near Houston, Texas September 12, 2008. REUTERS/Carlos Barria