Delta Air Lines is exploring a plan it hopes will enable it to get 80 percent of its jet fuel domestically by tapping into the oil boom in North Dakota.
The strategy includes buying crude oil drawn from North Dakota's Bakken oil fields at prices at or below what Delta currently pays in the world market and shipping it by train to a refinery Delta purchased in Pennsylvania earlier this year.
"Ownership of the refinery is enabling us to explore alternative sourcing of crude," Delta President Ed Bastian told the Deutsche Bank 2012 Aviation and Transportation Conference on Thursday.
Bastian said it was "too early to draw any conclusions," but the savings could help control the airline industry's biggest cost in a novel way.
"Fuel costs are enormous," Darryl Jenkins, chairman of the American Aviation Institute, said. "Of all the [cost-control strategies] I've seen in the last few years, this is the most interesting one."
Jenkins called the plan innovative, if unproven. "These guys are out in front of the rest of the industry," he said.
Like Bastian, Jenkins said it is too soon to know if Delta's domestic supply plan can lead to significant savings and set a business model for the airline industry.
Bastian said Delta is studying the price spread between Brent crude oil it now purchases and West Texas Intermediate crude it would get from North Dakota. Brent crude currently costs $18 more per barrel than West Texas Intermediate crude.
The airline is also talking to railroads about the costs of shipping the crude oil to the East Coast. Bastian promised more specifics at an investors meeting in December. But, he added, "it's a big opportunity. It's huge."
What Delta hopes to do is "absolutely" more viable than moving to jet biofuel to curb costs, said Stanford Seto, chairman of the subcommittee on aviation fuels of ASTM International, a group that sets fuel standards.
"The cost per gallon [of jet biofuel] now is four to six times greater than petroleum," Seto said.
Delta's purchase of a refinery near Philadelphia last year "took the whole industry by surprise," Seto said. Matching the recently acquired plant's refining capability to the quality of a North Dakota product is critical, Seto said. So is finding a use for oil that can't be processed into jet fuel.
"Jet fuel is made out of a small fraction of a barrel of oil," Seto explained. "If you don't turn the rest of the barrel into a product that can be sold, you lose profit."
Delta plans to swap gasoline, diesel and other petroleum products made at its refinery with oil companies in exchange for more jet fuel. The system, said Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter, is designed to provide 80 percent of the airline's fuel needs in the United States.
Only time will tell if practice can meet theory. "It's speculation," Seto said. "They think it will work. I don't know if anyone else does."
Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123