U.S. gasoline and heating oil futures slid on Tuesday, pulling back from pre-Hurricane Sandy gains as several key East Coast refineries and pipelines restored operations and traders bet on an enormous hit to demand for fuel.
Although the East Coast's second-biggest plant reported some flooding and two other plants also suffered power outages that could stymie production, some traders moved to pare back the risk premium that had driven three days of gains ahead of the storm, which they feared could squeeze fuel supplies.
Instead, the focus was shifting to diminished demand for transportation fuel as Sandy paralyzed much of the region, shutting airports, shipyards, rail- and highways. The East Coast region, known as PADD 1, consumes an estimated 5.2 million barrels per day (bpd) of fuel, about a quarter of the nation's total.
"The demand destruction may be the biggest since right after the attacks of September 11," said Phil Flynn, analyst at Price Futures Group in Chicago.
Benchmark Brent crude futures fell and U.S. crude seesawed near flat in choppy, low-volume trading, as many market participants in the U.S. Northeast were among the millions of people confronted with scenes of destruction left after the monster storm smashed into the New Jersey coast.
U.S. front-month November RBOB gasoline fell 2.80 cents to settle at $2.7288 a gallon, declining after a three-day rally. Turnover was just above 97,000 lots traded, 34 percent below the 30-day average, according to Reuters data.
FLOODING AT BAYWAY REFINERY
Gasoline futures bounced off Tuesday's low of $2.6916 a gallon after Phillips 66 said its 238,000-barrels-per-day refinery in Bayway, New Jersey, the region's second-largest, suffered "some flooding in low-lying areas" as well as a power outage that is expected to last one or two days.
The refinery shut on Monday as a precaution.
Two smaller plants were also idled by power trips, threatening to slow the recovery of fuel production that had been almost completely halted by the storm.
The closure of the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) trading floor, which was in the city's evacuation zone, and postponement of the government's weekly U.S. oil inventory data usually released on Wednesday also weighed on activity.
The American Petroleum Institute's (API) inventory data will be released as usual on Tuesday.
November heating oil futures , the U.S. benchmark for distillates, fell 2.86 cents to settle at $3.0866 a gallon, having fallen as low as $3.0675. Prices on Monday reached $3.1495, the highest since Oct. 19.
The November refined products contracts expire on Wednesday.
Despite some power problems, the region's refineries were seen as having emerged mostly unscathed by the storm, with the 330,000-bpd Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, the biggest on the East Coast, already ramping up operations.
U.S. December crude edged up 14 cents to settle at $85.68 a barrel, having reached $86.24. Prices fell to $84.66, their lowest since July, during Monday's session.
"I think (U.S.) crude is getting a lift because there was less damage than anticipated, and the refineries will be coming back up relatively fast," said Mark Waggoner, president at Excel Futures Inc.
Brent December crude fell 36 cents to settle at $109.08 a barrel, having swung from $108.65 to $110.10.
Brent's premium to U.S. crude fell to $23.40 a barrel based on settlements, after dropping below $23 and pushing above $24 a barrel during Tuesday's session.
U.S. OIL INVENTORIES
U.S. crude inventories were expected to have increased by 1.5 million barrels in the week to Oct. 26, according to a preliminary Reuters survey of analysts taken on Monday.
The U.S. Energy Department said it was delaying the Energy Information Administration's weekly oil inventory report at least until Thursday, depending on the extent of the storm damage. (Additional reporting by Alice Baghdjian in London and Florence Tan in Singapore; editing by Carol Bishopric and Prudence Crowther)