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Arthur Berman

Arthur Berman

Arthur E. Berman is a petroleum geologist with 36 years of oil and gas industry experience. He is an expert on U.S. shale plays and…

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The Billion Barrel Oil Swindle: 80% Of U.S. Oil Reserves Are Unaccounted-For

Shale oil workers

U.S. crude oil storage is filling up with unaccounted-for oil. There is a lot more oil in storage than the amount that can be accounted for by domestic production and imports.

That’s a big problem since oil prices move up or down based on the U.S. crude oil storage report. Oil stocks in inventory represent surplus supply. Increasing or decreasing inventory levels generally push prices lower or higher because they indicate trends toward longer term over-supply or under-supply.

Why Inventories Matter

Inventory levels have reached record highs since the oil-price collapse in 2014. This surplus supply is a major factor keeping oil prices low.

Current inventories are 45 million barrels higher than 2015 levels, which were more than 100 million barrels higher than the average from 2010 through 2014 (Figure 1). Until the present surplus is reduced by almost 150 million barrels down to the 2010-2014 average, there is little technical possibility of a sustained oil-price recovery.

(Click to enlarge)

Figure 1. U.S. Crude Inventories Are ~150 Million Barrels Above Average Levels. Source: EIA, Crude Oil Peak and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

U.S. inventories are critical because stock levels are published every week by the U.S. EIA (Energy Information Administration). The IEA (International Energy Agency) publishes OECD inventories, but that data is only published monthly and it measures liquids but not crude oil. It also largely parallels U.S. stock levels that account for almost half of its volume. Inventories for the rest of the world are more speculative.

Understanding U.S. Stock Levels

Understanding U.S. stock levels should be straight-forward. Every Wednesday, EIA publishes the Weekly Petroleum Status Report which includes a table similar to Figure 2.

Figure 2. EIA publishes adjustments and defines them as “Unaccounted-for Oil.” Source: EIA U.S. Petroleum Status Weekly (Week Ending September 16, 2016), Crude Oil Peak and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The calculation to determine the expected weekly stock change is fairly simple:

Stock Change = Domestic Production + Net Imports – Crude Oil Input to Refineries

Domestic production and net imports account for crude oil supply, and refinery inputs account for the volume of oil that is refined into petroleum products. If there is a surplus, it should show up as an addition to inventory and a deficit, as a withdrawal from inventory.

But that’s not how it works because EIA uses an adjustment in order to balance the books (Table 1).

Table 1. Calculation of Crude Oil Stock Change. Source: EIA Petroleum Status Weekly, Crude Oil Peak and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The logic is that estimated stock levels in tank farms and underground storage are relatively dependable and that any imbalance must be from less reliable production, net import or refinery intake data. Related: Nigerian Oil Anxieties Mount, Even With OPEC Exemption

There is nothing wrong with adjustment factors if they are small in comparison to what is to be balanced. In the Table 1 example from September 2016, however, the adjustment is 60 percent of the stock change–a bit too much.

A one-off perhaps? No, it’s a permanent problem that has gotten worse during the last several years.

Figure 3 shows that crude oil supply and refinery intake of oil vary considerably on a weekly basis. The balance is cumulatively negative over time beginning with a zero balance in January 1983. That suggests that crude oil stocks should be falling over time but instead, they have been rising.

(Click to enlarge)

Figure 3. Difference between U.S. crude oil supply and refinery intake. Source: EIA Petroleum Status Weekly.

The vertical bars show the weekly crude supply from production and net imports either exceeding the refinery input requirements (positive, green) or not reaching these requirements (negative, red). The solid red line is the cumulative.

Between 1991 and 2002, the deficit increased to a whopping 1.3 billion barrels.

Looking at only recent history, an additional gap of nearly 200 million barrels developed as refinery intake exceeded crude oil supply for most of 2010 through 2014 (Figure 4).

(Click to enlarge)

Figure 4. Difference between U.S. crude oil supply and refinery intake 2002-2016 (12-month moving average values). Source: EIA Petroleum Status Weekly, Crude Oil Peak and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Adjustments were introduced in late 2001 so let’s look at the period starting January 2002 (Figure 5).

(Click to enlarge)

Figure 5. EIA adjustments to supply to reconcile stock changes. Source: EIA Petroleum Status Weekly, Crude Oil Peak and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

There are both upward (blue) and downward (red) adjustments. Upward adjustments resulted in a 420-million-barrel stock increase over the period January 2002 through September 2016.

All together now

Expected or implied stock changes calculated from weekly crude oil balance indicate falling inventories from May 2009 through the present. Yet, EIA makes adjustments to that balance in order to match observed inventory levels. Rising inventories result after those adjustments are added to the physical balance or implied stock changes (Figure 6).

(Click to enlarge)

Figure 6. Unaccounted-for oil in U.S. storage: the result of adjustments to the supply balance. Source: EIA Petroleum Status Weekly, Crude Oil Peak and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The green area represents the physical balance (crude production plus net crude imports minus crude refinery intake). The gray area shows the unaccounted-for (adjusted) stocks.

The adjustment for unaccounted-for oil averaged about 15 percent from 2002 through 2010. In 2016, almost 80 percent of reported stocks are from unaccounted-for oil.

When You Have Eliminated The Impossible

There is no obvious solution for the mystery of unaccounted-for oil in U.S. inventories. Possible explanations, however, include:


1. Crude field production is underestimated
2. Net crude oil imports are underestimated
3. Refinery inputs are over-reported
4. Crude oil stocks are over-reported

or any combination of those possibilities.

Production, imports and refinery inputs are taxable transactions. It is likely that reporting errors are largely self-correcting over time because of the financial incentive for government to collect its due.

State regulatory agencies are the source of production data. Their principal objective is to assess production taxes. It is unlikely that states would consistently under-estimate production and forego substantial tax revenue. Related: Is Russia Diversifying Away From Oil Fast Enough?

Also, producers must state crude oil production in their SEC (U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission) filings and pay federal income tax on revenues from oil sales. It seems improbable that the SEC and U.S. Treasury would consistently accept under-reported production and associated lower tax payments.

Crude oil imports are subject to both tariffs and excise taxes so it seems unlikely that the U.S. government would consistently fail to identify under-payment of those revenues.

Similarly, taxes are involved when refiners buy crude oil and sell refined products. It seems improbable that they would over-state those transactions and consistently over-pay associated taxes.

The principal components of supply balance—production, imports and refinery intake—are shown in Figure 7. In a general way, increased production and decreased imports tend to cancel each other out. Refinery intake has increased since about 2010.

Those trends determine the physical balance or implied stocks. The inescapable conclusion is that implied stocks (in light blue) are substantially less than reported stocks (in gray).

Adjustments for unaccounted-for oil are unreasonable and out of proportion to the underlying factors that determine crude oil stock levels.

(Click to enlarge)

Figure 7. Components of unaccounted-for oil in U.S. storage. Source: EIA Petroleum Status Weekly, Crude Oil Peak and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

It would be speculation to blame anyone for this apparent statistical disaster. Nevertheless, there is a problem that has major implications for oil price and the reliability of reported data.

In several of his Sherlock Holmes mystery stories, Arthur Conan-Doyle wrote, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

We have not eliminated any impossible explanations. We have, however, eliminated the three most improbable explanations for unaccounted-for oil.

The truth—however improbable—is that inventories are probably much lower than what is reported.

By Art Berman for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Richard Taylor on October 09 2016 said:
    If this is true, the Obama administration is complicit and responsible for the impact of crude oil prices on the American oil and gas industry!

    Why am I not surprised!!
  • James Rose on October 10 2016 said:
    Is the strategic reserve being drawn down too?
  • Raj Manglani on October 10 2016 said:
    Volumes do not balance, mass does.
    If all calculations are done in tonnes,, "adjustment" no will be small
  • Bill Haus on October 10 2016 said:
    Much higher?

    Last Sentence of Great Article: The truth—however improbable—is that inventories are probably much lower than what is reported.
  • Gregory Foreman on October 10 2016 said:
    Another possible explanation, oil production is being under reported to both state and federal governments in order to avoid, ie, evade, paying taxes. Domestic oil storage should be compared against domestic oil production, the difference represents oil production not being reported and evading taxation. Would oil companies do such a thing?
    Oh hell yeah they would and they do!
  • scott harrison on October 10 2016 said:
    His opening statement and his closing remark are bipolar. Opposite. I am a little confused. Before I go further, can I have some help???
  • sixpack on October 10 2016 said:
    Well, all of oil ISIS has been stealing in Syria, Libya and Iraq has to go somewhere...we didn't think USA is donating millions to ISIS for free, did we?
  • Steven Balsam on October 10 2016 said:
    In his first sentence, the author meant that the reported amount of oil in storage is filling up ... and in the next line, there is a lot more oil reported to be in storage than the amount that can be accounted for ...
    As he makes clear in the rest of the article, he believes that the reported amount of oil in storage is incorrect.
  • scott harrison on October 10 2016 said:

    Thank you. A very long day.

  • D3F1ANT on October 10 2016 said:
    OH MY GOSH! ANOTHER little chunk of corruption brought to you by the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT! I'm just shocked!

    I'm disgusted to realize--more and more--that the system (and especially the Federal government) is not only corrupt...but corrupt to the point that one would never even expect. Corrupt to the point of parody! If we started, in earnest, to fix it today...we'd be fighting the good fight for the next 100 years.
  • Lotanna on October 11 2016 said:
    This does not appear good. Those reports have been driving oil price speculations for over a decade. If this is true, then the US has been gradually influencing the oil price dynamics unethically. I hope stock traders read this. The world would not be happy with the US. But then again, I expect them to point the fingers at one individual, jail him and find a new strategy to play the same game [I believe Strategic Petroleum Reserve was the last try].
  • JACK MA on October 12 2016 said:
    In 2015, 800,000 BPD went missing. This was faked oversupply to drive down prices and collapse Russia. The last time this much oil was missing was 22 years ago as a ploy to collapse Russia on low oil prices and back then it worked. This time, Russia simply allied with China.

    There is no oversupply of oil and any slight surplus that did exist in now in China's reserves on the cheap. Kerry really goofed when trying a old play-book to collapse Russia by ordering SA to flood the markets. What we will now see in 2 years is a 'absolute price shock up' on real billions in cap x cuts due to the fake oversupply driving down real prices.

    This is the oil super cycle driven by the petro-dollar collapse and Dedollarization by Russia and the BRICS. Globalization is failing obviously as is the dollar. Problem is we cannot simply bomb Russia and China so easily like the ME, as these two super powers will actually shoot back and the Western war-hawks are not used to a real enemy that shoots back.

    Warmest regards to all, and do your own homework and seek the truth.
  • Captain America on October 12 2016 said:
    Oh Yes.....Lets Put the Federal Government in Charge of Even MORE of Our Lives !
  • Milo Edwards on October 12 2016 said:
    Must be the result of common core math, so confusing that even experts can't figure it out. What about the 6.5 TRILLION bucks that is unaccounted for at the pentagon. The last time 2.3 TYRILLION was unaccounted for we had 9/11 the next day. Is this an omen for something big to happen imminently?
  • Ward on October 13 2016 said:
    What a conclusion - the 450MM barrels are not in inventory. Give me a break - ofc the physical inventory is there. Physical inventory is most reliable and verifiable parameter n calculation. You can stick a tank to know how much is in it.

    EIA (aka Obama)started underestimating "reported" production around 2011 according to figure 6. That's when the big changes start.

    Big assumption in article is that crude production as as estimated from taxes and EIA report are in-sync. Seems like reasonable assumption but there's no evidence in article that is the case. They can still get their taxes and EIA under reports the production because no one sync's up the EIA data with tax data.
  • scott harrison on October 14 2016 said:
    is the unaccounted for oil in gasoline and kerosene.....etc??????

    this is either a nightmare or ???????????????
  • rjs on October 15 2016 said:
    the use of the word swindle in the headline was unfortunate, and i'm almost certain that click bait wasn't Berman's choice...there is no swindle here, just inaccurate reporting of data...the government certainly doesn't have the assets in place to produce exact data on production from every US oil well, exact amount of oil refined by every refinery, and the amount of oil stored in every tank across the entire country for every Friday by the Wednesday of the next week... more likely, the EIA is only giving an estimate in a range, like Census estimates of housing data (which also move markets) which is collected by canvassing Census agents who drive their districts and record observations on their laptops...the monthly new home data typically comes in with a 90% confidence range +/- 15%; oil stats are certainly better but not exact....i would attribute the deterioration of the data to budget cuts sooner than any purposeful fudge on anyone's part...

    this piece should be read carefully, as he is exposing a fudge factor that the EIA uses weekly that i've been checking every week for a year...there's no deceit about it, it's there every week on line 13 of the oil balance sheet:

    since the other numbers which have their accuracy determined by that fudge factor are those that move the markets, that weekly adjustment should be covered by the media, just like imports and inventory, so everyone knows how inaccurate those weekly numbers are...i had to discover it for myself when i could see that the week to week numbers just didnt had up..
  • James Rose on October 17 2016 said:
    Its more plausible to believe the SPR is being sold into the commercial storage than that the EIA is faking reports. The reason is the if the EIA is faking reports, they've got to deputize the API to fake their reports as well. They're different, but not this different.
  • EHL on October 19 2016 said:
    Anyone ever mention you are long winded S.O.G? Simplified version,, Figures don't lie, but People do FIGURE!
  • Harris Barlow on November 03 2016 said:
    So, to be clear, the idea that oil produced in states with Republican leadership might be going 'unaccounted' for the purposes of lowering tax bills is being dismissed as "impossible"?
  • Duane on November 03 2016 said:
    Hanlon's razor is very applicable to all Government affairs.....Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity
  • Peter on November 04 2016 said:
    The key to the fact is IF the reported crude stock is reliable. Could it be audited? If they're reliable, this's what we have, the unaccounted part was really a concern but not for the market.

    From logical point of view, US like China, should import more cheap oil for strategic purpose, not for sales, during oil glut period. Why not?
  • Jeffery Surratt on November 06 2016 said:
    I live in Great Falls, MT The small refinery here has spent 450 million dollars to double their daily output of product to 10,000 bpd. That is a lot of product for such a small refinery. MT population is just over 1 million, so I assume much of the product is exported out of the state. If one small refinery can produce this much, how much more can the big refineries produce and hide from regulators. No one really knows the number of gallons of product in the supply chain at any time, it is all just one big WAG. Also, the refinery in Billings has increased it's output to 60,000 bpd. But I see in reports we are not using any more gasoline than we did in 2007.
    Where is all this increased output going??? The truth is out there somewhere, but we will never find it - It is like looking for a needle in a haystack, good luck!
  • rjs on November 27 2016 said:
    art, it turns out that it isn't the oil inventory figures that are in error, it's the production figures that have been understated...i show that here by comparing the weekly estimates to the confirmed monthly figures, which shows that the EIA's weekly output figures were 233,000 barrels per day short of what was actually being produced in August, the last month we have confirmed data for...

  • ME on August 31 2017 said:
    Interesting the article uses the Sherlock Holmes quote. Yet, what it suggest is impossible is in fact true. The article states that "State regulatory agencies are the source of production data... It is unlikely that states would consistently under-estimate production and forego substantial tax revenue." But, the state regulator of Louisiana in 2008 (Jim Welsh) undeniably says it relies on self reporting by producers. The state is not the true source of production numbers. So, you can't claim production numbers are correct based on the states incentive to collect taxes. You can hear the quote at 0:26 of this audio https://soundcloud.com/user972921226/3rdworldcountry .

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