A glut of shale oil in fields from Texas to North Dakota is forcing producers to find ways around the U.S.’s three-decade-old ban on crude exports in order to seek higher prices in foreign markets.
Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP is among companies setting up mini-refineries to process certain grades of crude just enough to qualify them as refined fuels, which are legal to export.
The industry’s best hope is ultra-light oil, which is so abundant in shale rock that it has flooded the Gulf Coast and traded for a record discount to global benchmark Brent crude last quarter. Potential revenue for exports is $40 billion a year based on global prices, or about $9.7 billion more than what the same oil fetches in the U.S.
“It’s going to get exported in one way, shape or form or another,” said Ed Hirs, a professor of energy economics at the University of Houston who also runs a small production company in Texas. Producers will sell it abroad “as a product in its own right, or it’s going to be exported as a finished good, having become diesel, plastic or fertilizer.”
Ultra-light oil, known as condensate, is pure enough that it was poured directly into the gas tanks of California cars in the 1920s. It may make up as much as 14 percent of U.S. crude production in 2013, or almost 1 million barrels a day, about 66 percent more than its level three years ago, the Houston-based energy consultant RBN Energy LLC estimated.
Because there are not enough buyers where it’s pumped, the easy-to-refine crude has become the vanguard of an effort by the oil industry to get Congress to further weaken U.S. limits on most crude oil and natural gas exports that have been in place since the early 20th century.
The government last year began approving plants to liquefy and ship natural gas overseas on tankers. That was the biggest policy change since the rules were tightened in the 1970s, when securing domestic supplies got priority after Middle East turmoil led to shortages and long lines at filling stations.
With a burgeoning output from shale having reduced U.S. oil prices, Congress is being asked to weigh the benefits of cheaper gasoline and diesel for consumers against higher profit for energy companies that want to export part of their output.
“This is all new ground,” said Scott Schwind, an attorney at Jones Day in Houston who regularly handles fuel supply and delivery contracts. “We’ve been hearing about energy security for all of our lifetimes, so to even talk about exporting is a major shift that will bring about some weighty political questions in Washington.”
Allowing exports could narrow price disparities between U.S.-produced oil and imports such as Brent by opening new markets outside of the refineries on the Gulf Coast.
Condensate prices have been falling as supplies of light oil has grown. U.S. condensate sold for a record average of $26.47 a barrel less than Brent oil in the fourth quarter of 2012, compared with an average difference of $6.70 in the same quarter of 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Valero Energy Corp., Kinder Morgan and Marathon Petroleum Corp. are spending $850 million to build mini-refineries or upgrade existing plants to process the ultra-light crude. The soonest to come online is Kinder’s, set for the first quarter of 2014.
The plants will do little more than heat oil and condensate to a boiling point and distill them into separate fluids. Prices for condensate average about $4.57 less per barrel than heavier U.S. crude, crimping producer profits by as much as $1.7 billion a year, according to calculations based on RBN Energy data.
Valero was granted permission by U.S. regulators to send a limited amount of crude to its Quebec refinery, spokesman Bill Day said in an interview. The company does not support widespread crude exports, he said.
“To us it makes more sense to keep the raw material here and process it here with American labor and expertise and have value-added products that you can market to the world,” he said.
Marathon anticipates that high volumes of condensate eventually produced in Ohio’s Utica field will be consumed in the Midwest and won’t reach the U.S. Gulf Coast for potential export, CEO Gary Heminger said in an interview.
Kinder Morgan, which has returned 9.2 percent for its investors in 2013, will process condensate for companies and won’t control where the products are shipped, Don Lindley, a vice president in the company’s refined products pipeline division said in a Jan. 30 interview.
Condensate “used to be the backwater of the backwater, and it hasn’t mattered until now,” said Rusty Braziel, president of RBN Energy, who predicts that the growing volume of condensate swamping the Gulf Coast market will be exported to Canada or elsewhere. “All of a sudden we’ve got a lot of it, so it matters now.”
Condensate can flow from both oil and natural gas wells. The processing units envisioned by Kinder Morgan and others can convert low-cost condensate to petroleum products for as much as $1 to $2 cheaper per barrel than a conventional refinery, said Alfred Luaces, senior director of global petroleum markets at IHS.
The units, called splitters, may be able to process as much as 300,000 barrels of crude a day, Luaces said. The mini-refineries being built “split” the condensate into naphtha, a feedstock for making plastic and other chemicals, and kerosene, which can be exported to markets in Asia and Latin America, he said.
Those chemically simpler products may not fetch as much as finished gasoline or diesel fuel, but the lower cost of running the splitter makes it attractive to sell them on international markets, said Judith Dwarkin, chief economist at ITG Investment Research Inc. in Calgary.
“It’s a cheap way around the export limitation,” Dwarkin said in an interview.
Limited demand for expanding light oil supplies among Gulf Coast refiners configured to handle heavier crude led the Commerce Department last year to approve more exports of condensate and light oil for companies including BP and Royal Dutch Shell Plc. Crude exports rose to 73,000 barrels a day in November, the highest total in that month since 1999, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
There are no limits on refined products. U.S. fuel exports reached an all-time high last year of an average 2.6 million barrels a day, according to Energy Department data. U.S. fuel imports from OPEC have fallen 37 percent, and the country’s petroleum deficit, the difference between the cost of its hydrocarbon imports and exports, fell to $18.7 billion, the lowest since 2004, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“Some molecules are painted with a no export sign,” said Braziel, of RBN. “Other molecules are painted with the OK to export sign, and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why some molecules are OK and some aren’t.”