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Russian crude pipeline woes boost Europe's refining profits

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By Ron Bousso, Ahmad Ghaddar and Shadia Nasralla

LONDON (Reuters) - A string of European refinery outages after contamination forced the shutdown of Russia's Druzhba crude pipeline has constrained fuel supply across the continent and delivered an unexpected boost to profit margins.

But the Russian supply woes, the worst in decades, coupled with unplanned North Sea oilfield outages have also raised prices for the crude refiners use to make products such as diesel and gasoline, curbing their margin gains.

Several refineries across Germany and eastern Europe have been forced in recent weeks to slow down their operations after high levels of organic chloride were found to have contaminated Urals crude pumped via the Druzhba pipeline to the Baltic port of Ust-Luga and to other European countries.

Graphic: North Sea Forties crude differentials - https://tmsnrt.rs/2WWnR5U

At the same time, North Sea crude prices have risen on demand from refiners looking to offset the disrupted Russian supply at a time of field and pipeline outages in the region.

The Forties North Sea crude stream reached its highest since early 2016.

Graphic: Ekofisk cracking margins - https://tmsnrt.rs/2WRXEp6

The refinery outages have also led to a sharp drop in stocks of gasoline and diesel in the region, boosting prices but also creating logistical difficulties for traders hunting for alternative sources of crude and products.

Total suspended operations at some units of the 230,000 barrel-per-day Leuna refinery in Germany last week for technical checks due to the contamination as it awaits alternative supplies of feedstock from the Polish port of Gdansk, it said.

Roughly 250,000 barrels per day (bpd) in European refining capacity, or just under 2% of the continent's product demand, will be impacted in the second quarter of the year by the Druzhba outage, the International Energy Agency estimates.

"The market is all over the place: field outages, refinery issues, Urals, geopolitics, all at the same time," a European trading source said.


Overall refining profit margins have been buoyed with Europe's overall Ekofisk refining margin reaching a seven-week high on Friday.

European gasoline profit margins have hit an 8-month high of more than $13 per barrel since the pipeline outage. Diesel refining margins at around $15 per barrel are near a 2-month high.

The impact has been particularly acute in Germany, Europe's largest economy, where traders have been forced to import gasoline and diesel from the Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp (ARA) refining hub on barges or tankers in recent days, traders said. Germany is typically an exporter of gasoline components to ARA.

BP's decision to start maintenance at its 400,000 bpd refinery in Rotterdam - one of Europe's biggest and most complex - in mid-May rather than October, as initially planned, exacerbated the supply crunch. It will be out for four to six weeks, traders said.

Trader Gunvor also shut down one of its two crude units at its Rotterdam refinery in early May. The unit resumed operations on May 18, industry monitor Genscape said.

"It seems likely that European gasoline and diesel supplies will be tight over the next 4-6 weeks at least," said Robert Campbell, head of oil products at consultancy Energy Aspects.

ARA gasoline stocks fell by more than 5 percent in the week to May 16 to their lowest since August 2018, data from Insights Global showed. Seasonally, gasoline stocks are at their lowest since 2015.

The drop in gasoline stocks and subsequent price rise have also made exports from the region to the U.S. East Coast uneconomic, tightening the supply outlook in North America, Campbell added.

Gasoil stocks, which include diesel and heating oil, were also below their five-year average though still higher than last year's levels, the data show.

Graphic: ARA gasoline stocks - https://tmsnrt.rs/2LS0ycr

(Editing by Jason Neely)