Car journeys in major American cities are usually a hell of red brake lights. Congestion eased this month for a disturbing reason.
The coronavirus empties American highways while workers stay at home to avoid contagion. Their behavior tipped the biggest oil market in the world.
In the United States, demand for oil normally increases from February to March. But the data with the first hotspots of the virus show the opposite.
Seattle was the epicenter of the west coast US coronavirus epidemic, prompting companies like Amazon and Microsoft to order employees to work from home.
On Highway 5 between the town of Everett 40 kilometers north, traffic volumes had dropped 4% at the start of last week. Traffic on a congested section of the I-405 has decreased by 8 percent, the state transportation department said.
Fuel sales are “slower, slower than usual,” said the manager of an Arco gas station in the suburbs of Seattle.
Fewer refills are part of a coronavirus shock that will reduce global oil use in 2020, the first decline in more than a decade, the International Energy Agency estimated. Last year, Americans consumed 9.3 million barrels per day of gasoline, nearly a tenth of the world’s oil supply, and about half of that is estimated for travel.
The Energy Information Administration, an agency of the United States government, slightly raised its forecast for domestic gasoline demand in 2020 last week, suggesting that it would be 10,000 b / d more than in 2019.
For the moment, the demand for petrol remains strong. Data from Genscape, a division of consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, showed that US gas flows from wholesale fuel terminals increased 3.1% year over year over the First 11 days of March.
“Right now, students have to go home. People always go to the store to stock up on supplies, “said Ann-Louise Hittle, Wood Mackenzie analyst.
“But growing demand will eventually be affected by the decline in commuting,” added Hittle.
Other data suggests that this is already happening. Retail gasoline sales in the United States fell 3.2% in the week ended March 7 compared to the same week a year earlier, according to a regular survey of more than 15,000 stations by OPIS, a data and fuel price service. In the western United States, sales were down 5.3%.
In Seattle’s home state of Washington, gasoline sales fell 8.2% year-over-year, said Fred Rozell, president of OPIS, a division of IHS Markit. He warned that the Washington sample was relatively small, 180 stations.
OPIS also tracks the frequency of visits to gas stations from cell phone pings, and from the first week of February to the first week of March, Seattle subway visits fell 14%, said M Rozell.
The prospect of a hole in demand pushed US gasoline futures down by a third to settle below $ 1 a gallon last week. Gas prices at the pump have slipped below $ 2 a gallon over a wide swath of the country, according to GasBuddy, which collects data submitted by drivers.
However, the fall in prices should not stimulate demand. A gas payment service operated by GasBuddy recorded 5.6% fewer transactions in the United States during the week ending March 1 compared to the previous week, and a decrease of 12% in the Washington State said Allison Mac, petroleum analyst at GasBuddy.
Ms. Mac is based in Boston, another city where the coronavirus arrived early. Massachusetts Department of Transportation data showed a sharp drop in traffic delays in the metropolitan area.
For example, on the I-93 freeway south of the suburb of Woburn, morning congestion generally extends 16 km from Boston. Tuesday morning, the back of the queue was only six miles from town.
“We all work remotely,” said Mac. “It went dark very quickly.”
For workers who have to commute, some can take cars instead of their regular buses or trains, said Rozell. The number of vehicles crossing bridges and tunnels between New Jersey and New York at the start of last week was about the same as the previous week, said the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The Port Authority’s executive director also tested positive for coronavirus last week.