Exporting crude oil from the U.S. has long been largely illegal. Until lately, it has also been mostly unthinkable. Domestic production had been declining for decades and the country seemed hopelessly addicted to foreign supplies. Not anymore. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have squeezed torrents of oil from shale rock deep underground. The U.S. produced more oil in 2013 than it imported for the first time since 1988 and it’s expected to overtake Russia and Saudi Arabia in 2015 to become the world’s biggest producer. Can exports be far behind?
The U.S. bans most exports of crude oil, the stuff that comes from the ground before being turned into gasoline, heating fuel and other useful products. That’s been true since 1975, after an Arab oil embargo shocked the economy. Now production is set to surge 16 percent to 9.5 million barrels a day by the end of 2015, the most since 1972. That’s pushing down domestic prices faster than foreign ones: West Texas Intermediate crude will fall 4.8 percent to an average of $93.22 a barrel in 2014, while Brent, the international benchmark, declines 3.6 percent to $104.68, the U.S. Energy Department estimates. While refineries benefit from cheaper costs compared with foreign competitors, producers want access to higher prices from overseas buyers. Last year, the American Petroleum Institute, which represents Big Oil in Washington, began preparing to challenge the ban, claiming it violates World Trade Organization rules against export restrictions. Exxon Mobil said it supports lifting the export ban. So does Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the senior Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She may have a sympathetic partner in the committee’s new chairman, Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu. Even Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said the export ban is outdated and should be reviewed.
It may seem counterintuitive to talk about exporting crude oil when the U.S. still imports more than 7 million barrels a day, more than any other country. But crude oil isn’t perfectly fungible. Oil from different regions comes in different grades, meaning variations in density and sulfur content. The cost of moving crude by pipeline, rail or ship can also create bottlenecks. Most of the growth in U.S. production is light shale oil, but many refineries are configured to process heavier crudes from South America and the Middle East. That mismatch is creating a surplus of domestic light oil even as imports keep pouring in. Refineries in the Gulf Coast, East Coast and Canada will become saturated in the first half of next year, Goldman Sachs says. At that point, the U.S. will have to expand plants, curb output or allow exports.
Producers that want to sell oil at higher prices overseas argue that keeping the export ban will push down domestic prices until drilling becomes unprofitable, jeopardizing the U.S. goal of energy independence. Refiners support the ban to maintain their cost advantage, which helps them sell record amounts of fuels abroad (because exports of oil products are permitted). European refiners, by contrast, would benefit from access to U.S. crude. Some politicians, such as Democratic Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, contend that allowing exports would lead to higher gasoline prices. Environmentalists are concerned that exports would lead to more drilling and consumption of polluting fossil fuels. Similarly, government approval for facilities to ship liquefied natural gas was opposed by chemical companies that use the fuel as a raw material, arguing that exports would raise prices at home. As the debate heats up, the industry is finding ways to work around the oil-export ban. Exports to Canada, which are allowed with licenses from the Commerce Department, more than doubled to 61,000 barrels a day in the past year, government data show. Companies are also expanding shale processing equipment, such as Kinder Morgan‘s simplified refineries called splitters that process crude just enough to qualify as a product that can be legally exported.