As Europe's Drivers Ditch Diesel, They Get Lucky in Oil Market

(Bloomberg) -- Europe’s drivers are ditching diesel cars in favor of gasoline. The oil market is handing them something of a lucky break as they do.

In the continent as a whole, diesel’s market share for new auto registrations shrank to 32 percent last year from 39 percent a year earlier, according to the International Energy Agency. As the great switch gathers pace, the price premium for gasoline across Europe has tumbled to the lowest since 2008.

As Europe's Drivers Ditch Diesel, They Get Lucky in Oil Market

“Directionally, gasoline demand will increase as diesel goes even more out of favor,” said Steve Sawyer, a London-based analyst at industry consultant Facts Global Energy. Price pressure on gasoline will persist because the region’s supply exceeds demand by about 1 million barrels a day, he said.

Still Shunning

Once the dominant choice for Europe’s car buyers, diesel’s recent decline can be traced to the Dieselgate scandal in late 2015, when it emerged that Volkswagen AG had been cheating regulators and misleading buyers by using software to suppress emissions from cars that burned the fuel during tests. Despite still being cheaper on average at the pump in Europe and giving greater mileage per gallon, consumers are still shunning diesel.

As they do that, gasoline’s premium is whittling away. The average retail price of gasoline is just three euro cents a liter above diesel, compared with more than 23 cents back in 2015, according to European Commission data.

It could be even better for drivers of gasoline-powered vehicles were it not for tax. Excluding tax, gasoline is 9 cents a liter cheaper across Europe, having been 4 cents higher on average as recently as 2015.

As Europe's Drivers Ditch Diesel, They Get Lucky in Oil Market

Drivers of gasoline-fueled cars are benefiting in part from wider gyrations in oil markets. Where crude supplies are growing fastest -- notably in the U.S. -- they’re often grades that are rich in gasoline. Unfortunately for diesel drivers, OPEC is scaling back on heavier grades that can yield more of the distillate. On top of that, major producers of such barrels like Venezuela and Iran are scaling back involuntarily, while Canada also elected to do so.

The push toward gasoline-powered vehicles comes as a supply glut of the fuel builds and opportunities diminish to export that surplus to traditional markets such as the U.S. Gasoline is now a loss-making product for refineries in Europe, a rarely-seen occurrence, with independently held stockpiles in Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp trading hub at their highest seasonally in at least decade.

‘Dramatic Collapse’

Diesel’s share of auto registrations in Spain has slumped to just above 30 percent, the lowest in at least eight years, according to the Spanish Automobile Association. Gasoline’s share of auto registrations in the country doubled in the past five years to more than 60 percent.

In Germany, diesel auto sales slumped to their lowest since at least 2009 last year, accounting for about a third of registrations last year, compared with almost half in 2015, according to data from the Federal Motor Vehicles Office.

“There has been a dramatic collapse of new diesel car sales in the UK,” said Luke Bosdet, a spokesman for the Automobile Association. Drivers are put off by a combination of rising fuel costs, pollution concerns, and increasing taxes and charges, particularly in cities, he said.

Gasoline sales climbed above 1.5 billion liters in the U.K. in November for the first time for that month since 2013.

Shipping Fuel

Gasoline may also be getting cheaper on a relative basis due to the forthcoming rules limiting the sulfur content in shipping fuel. The regulations have stoked demand for so-called middle distillate fuels including marine gasoil, a fuel similar to diesel that can power merchant vessels while meeting the clean fuel rules, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

“Demand for middle distillates is rising and it seems that shipping is taking more diesel out of the passenger vehicle market -- generally pushing diesel prices higher,” said Salih Yilmaz, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “On the refining side, the run to create more diesel is resulting in more gasoline too, creating a glut and pressuring gasoline prices.”

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