The oil tanker business was big money when the U.S. was guzzling oil from the Middle East and prices were sky high. But, over the past five years, the tides have turned and now tanker owners are sinking under the weight of lack of work for their ships.

The U.S. is now exploiting domestic oil found in shale deposits beneath the earth, and even China is finding ways to get oil without demanding too many tankers. The trends that once drove massive profits for tankers have now flipped and are working against the industry.

This has led to terrible results for some of the industry's biggest players. Frontline (NYSE:FRO) has seen revenue fall off a cliff since 2008 and Ship Finance International (NYSE:SFL), Nordic American Tankers (NYSE:NAT), and Teekay (NYSE:TK) have struggled as well.

FRO Revenue TTM Chart

FRO Revenue TTM data by YCharts

The big question is if this will continue. So far in 2013 the trends don't appear to be in the industry's favor. According to Frontline, the double hull spot price was $14,600 per day in the first quarter, down from $22,400 in 2012. Suezmax spot prices were down to $14,500 from $15,200 last year.  

The hardest hit companies by these tanker trends will be Frontline and Nordic American Tankers, who have little diversification in their fleets. Ship Finance International and Teekay aren't experiencing the same losses and are actually seeing some improvement, in part because of exposure to oil drilling, liquefied natural gas, and other markets.

Are the days of tanker profits over
So, is the struggling tanker market going to improve or should we expect break-even results at best down the line?

Trends don't appear to be in the oil tanker market's favor. Domestic drilling in the U.S. is reducing oil imports dramatically and China is expanding pipelines to Russia, Myanmar, and other countries in its region. There's simply less need for tankers to ship oil oceans away, and that doesn't bode well for tanker stocks.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.