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Europe’s Large Diesel Stockpiles Could Run Down Fast as Russia Bites

Europe’s Large Diesel Stockpiles Could Run Down Fast as Russia Bites
A customer fills up with diesel at a gas station in Rome, Italy, on Wednesday, March 9, 2022. Gasoline prices are surging across Europe with the war in Ukraine and threats to expand sanctions to energy raising questions about whether Russian supplies will keep flowing to market. Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomberg

There’s growing anxiety that Europe might run out of diesel following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine -- and little wonder given that the continent has historically taken about 20% of its imports from the country.

European oil companies are shunning petroleum supplies from Russia as the fighting spills into a second month, and instead seeking shipments from as far afield as the Middle East, Asia and the U.S. Oil majors including Shell Plc, BP Plc and TotalEnergies SE are already restricting deliveries of the fuel in Germany.

Alarmed by the outlook, traders are paying vast premiums to snap up available supplies now rather than waiting. Firms including Trafigura Group have warned that some locations could run dry. That echoes dire predictions from politicians in Moscow that Europe faces shortages. There’s even talk of an outright ban on buying.

For a sense of how acute the problem really is, and how quickly there could be stock outs, here’s a look at some underlying numbers.

There were 247.4 million barrels of middle distillates — the fuel category that counts diesel as by far its biggest component — stored in European countries at the end of January, according to the International Energy Agency. That’s enough to meet about 40 days of demand, even if the region didn’t produce or import a single extra barrel of the fuel.

European countries will continue to produce diesel and import it from their traditional non-Russian sources. The speed at which stockpiles are drawn down will depend on their success in replacing the supplies that currently come from Russia.

How Long?
Those stockpiles aren’t evenly distributed, though, and stresses will emerge sooner in some locations than others. While Finland and Denmark hold enough in private and government-controlled inventories to keep industry running for more than six months, the U.K. and Norway hold enough for little more than 30 days.

Before the pandemic, the U.K. relied on imports to meet about half its middle distillates demand, with about one-third of those supplies coming from Russia, according to Eurostat data. The country is going to have to find alternative sources for about 100,000 barrels a day of diesel, one medium-sized ocean going tanker per week, if it’s to avoid eating up its stockpiles.

But the U.K. may be in a relatively favorable position in other ways. It has a traditional reliance on imports from a variety of suppliers for both crude and diesel.

Moscow Ties
Countries, or even regions within countries, that traditionally rely on non-Russian supplies — either of crude for their refineries or of diesel fuel — will fare better than those that have strong ties to Moscow. Europe’s biggest diesel consumer — Germany — is a good example of that.

The southern part of the country is linked to the Mediterranean Sea by crude oil pipelines from Marseille in France and Trieste in Italy that feed its refineries in Karlsruhe, Vohburg-Ingolstadt and Burghausen. As such, it is relatively independent of Russian supplies.

Similarly, the west of the country is linked to ports at Rotterdam and Wilhelmshaven, giving it some protection from the impact of any sanctions and the “self-sanctioning” that has emerged in the past few weeks. A reliance on imported Russian diesel still leaves it vulnerable, though.

But it is the eastern part of the country, where refineries process predominantly Russian crude, that would face the greatest pressure if the flow of that oil stopped.

Germany’s emergency stockpiles are distributed over the territory of the Federal Republic in such a way that in each of five defined supply regions there are at least 15 days of immediately accessible stocks, according to the German Petroleum Stockpiling Association (Erdölbevorratungsgesetz, or EBV). The five regions “essentially correspond to the logistical environment of the refinery centers,” the association said in its latest annual report.

Those stockpiles would be drawn down much more quickly in the east of Germany than they will in the south, and the region’s ability to cope will depend to a great extent on how easy it is to move supplies across the country.

Russia Oil Ban Would Bring Eastern Germany to Halt: Oil Strategy

The same will be true elsewhere on the continent. A heavy dependence on Russian crude will make refineries in the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary relatively vulnerable to any supply cut-offs or curbs to buying. That could quickly have a knock-on effect on diesel supplies.

There are already disruptions to supplies to wholesalers in some parts of Germany. More will follow if products cannot be moved to where they are needed. To the extent that it’s possible, such movement will depend on trucks, trains and barges.

Prices could also do much of the work long before there are material shortages, rising to levels that destroy demand.

But any notable shortages of the fuel at filling stations would be a blow not only to drivers, but also economically devastating for the industries — logistics, construction, and agriculture — that rely heavily on diesel.


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