The other clear trend in earnings was virtually every midstream energy company transitioning to a capital allocation focused on positive free-cash-flow after dividends. This is a stark change made possible by declining capital expenditures for midstream projects and sale of non-core assets. We forecast growth capex to decline by approximately $16 billion YTD as midstream rationalizes project spending. This shift in spending has allowed the midstream sector to not only be free cash flow positive, but materially so, especially compared to other asset classes and the S&P 500. In 2021, we expect midstream companies to have $8 billion of free cash flow after distributions and by 2024 we expect $21 billion of free cash flow after distributions.
We believe midstream companies will more directly return cash flow to shareholders in the form of dividends, debt reduction and share buybacks. While continuing to pay out very high dividend yields, we are advocating for companies to utilize stock buybacks to create their own flows and help turn the tide on stock performance. The numbers show that this can be achieved while still reducing leverage in a meaningful way.
During the last few months of the year, the buybacks announcements started coming in earnest. In early October, Targa Resources Corp. (TRGP) announced a $500 million stock buyback program. MPLX LP (MPLX) and Plains All American LP (PAA) followed suit, announcing significant buyback programs for $1 billion and $500 million, respectively for the three largest during the quarter. In total, 10 midstream companies announced share buyback programs in 2020, including six during the fourth quarter. We believe, the forthcoming free cash flow and share buyback themes can help can drive sustainable outperformance for the midstream sector.
While the 2020 presidential election created headline risks for the energy sector, we believe the consensus path forward for the Biden Administration will focus on getting Americans back to work with supportive policies versus policies aimed at opposing the oil and gas industry or destroying jobs. The predominant theme around Biden’s energy plan is to address climate change and create substantial job opportunities for Americans. The topic of climate change and related opportunities for the overall economy was one of the four pillars of the convention platform, integrated into an overall vision of revitalization of America. We expect market economics to dictate the trajectory of future energy supply and demand. Renewables and natural gas are more economic than coal in generating electricity and will likely continue to take share, while crude oil will likely remain the predominant fuel source in the transportation sector for the near future.
Finally, despite past comments early on during the campaign, we do not expect a ban on fracking. It is worth noting that under the Obama Administration, the ban on crude oil exports was lifted which was supportive of the energy industry. Ironically, regulatory pressures have the potential to tighten new supply, pushing oil and gas prices up, and making existing infrastructure more valuable.
2020 also ushered in continued questions about midstream energy’s role in an energy transition environment. During the year there were three oil majors, Royal Dutch Shell PLC (RDS.A), Total SE (TOT) and BP PLC (BP), that openly discussed a path forward around renewable energy. The European Union (EU) moved further towards renewables and 7 of the 10 largest economies stated their intention to have net-zero emissions by 2050. While the energy transition will take time to play out, midstream management teams openly discussed the role their companies could play in such a transition. Pipeline infrastructure, for example, could be repurposed to transport hydrogen. As the world continues to demand more energy and less carbon, we are encouraging midstream companies to view energy transition opportunistically.
Within the downstream portion of the energy value chain, the refining sector remained among the most challenged sectors in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Refinery utilization has recovered from the depths of the economic contraction in March and April but remains below 2019 levels. Permanent refinery closures have and should continue to help balance the market from a supply and demand perspective. From a U.S. refined product standpoint, we believe gasoline and diesel will continue to inch towards pre-COVID levels during 2021 while a slower recovery should be expected in jet fuel. As U.S. energy demand recovers in 2021, U.S. refinery utilization and throughput should exhibit strong growth and return to more normalized levels.
Natural gas liquids, unlike the refining sector, has proved resilient despite challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Strength can be seen in LPGs (liquid petroleum gases) where demand is driven by global population growth and improvements in living standards in Asia, notably in China and India.
One of the key regulatory announcements of 2020 was the Army Corps of Engineers announcing it began work on an environmental impact statement for the Dakota Access Pipeline, something the district court requested for the better part of the year. Another requirement of the court was that the Corps determine a remedy for the fact that the pipeline no longer has a permit to cross Federal land.
We are closely monitoring Dakota Access Pipeline developments as the fate of pipeline impacts several midstream companies. In other pipeline news, in July, the Supreme Court agreed to reinstate streamlined permitting for pipelines across the country, except for Keystone XL. This is positive for the most notable project under construction, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, Equitrans’ 300+ mile natural gas pipeline which is nearing completion after a series of several delays.