The U.S. can wait to lift the ban on crude exports because slowing production will give refiners time to handle the type of oil produced in shale plays, Energy Information Administration chief Adam Sieminski said.
While producers could earn more money selling oil overseas because of the spread between the global and U.S. benchmarks, it may not be necessary for the government to act now, he said in an interview Wednesday at Bloomberg’s Houston bureau.
“If there was a wall that light tight oil production is going to hit in refining capacity ability to process -- that’s one of the theories -- the pace that production was approaching that wall, the speed, has slowed down,” Sieminski said. “From that standpoint, it probably means it might not be as critical for a policy maker to decide immediately to do something about that.”
Sieminski also said that “if you could earn an extra few dollars by exporting oil,” there’s an argument to be made for lifting the ban sooner.
Sieminski, who is in Houston this week for the annual IHS CERAWeek energy conference, doesn’t have a direct role in crude export policy decisions. However, policy makers use his agency’s data to aid in the decisions.
Export proponents say many U.S. refineries are not designed to handle oil that is being produced from new domestic shale plays. Companies including Exxon Mobil Corp. have urged the U.S. government to ease restrictions against most exports of unrefined crude. Others, including Valero Energy Corp., say the U.S. is benefiting from existing rules.
Producer cutbacks amid lower oil prices are affecting those arguments.
U.S. crude explorers idled rigs for a 19th straight week last week, bringing drilling in America’s oil fields to the lowest level since November 2010. The six-month retreat in oil drilling is bringing the U.S. shale boom to a halt, with crude production falling three times in four weeks and the government projecting a decline in output from tight-rock formations next month.
Lawmakers including Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, and Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, have called for lifting the export restrictions, a policy that dates to supply shortages of the 1970s. Oil producers including ConocoPhillips and Hess Corp. have lobbied for doing so.
Sieminski said the decline within the past year has benefited consumers, saving the typical household $700 a year in gasoline alone. In its April Short-Term Energy Outlook, the EIA projected that West Texas Intermediate oil will average $52.48 a barrel this year, down from $93.26 last year. WTI rose 38 cents to $56.54 in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange at 8:06 a.m. Thursday.
“Eighty-five percent of the world is really happy that oil is $60 a barrel rather than $100 a barrel,” Sieminski said. “Don’t lose sight of that.”
The price of Brent oil, the global benchmark, could fall $5 to $15 a barrel if sanctions that have restricted Iranian oil exports are lifted, Sieminski said. Iran is believed to have 30 million barrels stockpiled in floating storage and available to move quickly, according to the EIA.
“It would be awesome for consumers,” Sieminski said of lower oil prices. “It’s very easy when you’re focused on the oil world to focus on production, what this is doing to the economy and what’s happened in Texas and the state of Alaska, which depends on oil royalties for a huge portion of its revenue flow. It obviously has huge consequences.”
On other subjects, Sieminski said there’s a “flaw” in using Cushing, Oklahoma, storage figures as the sole gauge of future movements in the WTI price, the U.S. benchmark, because there are other storage options. Among them: the Seaway pipeline from Cushing to the U.S. Gulf Coast is not running at full capacity, and Canada could send more oil to the Chicago area instead of to Cushing.
In addition, “there’s more storage space here in the Houston Ship Channel area that could be utilized,” he said.