California Isn't Feeling U.S. Oil Boom as OPEC Dependence Grows

  • State sourced a record 52% of its crude from overseas in 2015
  • Falling in-state and Alaska production is driving imports

The shale oil boom that cut U.S. crude imports by 32 percent in a decade isn’t being felt out west as California grows increasingly dependent on Middle East supplies.

California brought in a record 52 percent of its crude from abroad last year, up from just 9 percent 20 years earlier, according to California Energy Commission data. The state hasn’t yet released the specific countries that supplied that oil in 2015, but in 2014, about 58 percent came from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the most recent data show.

Foreign dependence is only expected to grow as supplies from within the state and Alaska diminish and efforts to bring U.S. crude from the Midwest by rail face local opposition.

“Regulatory impediments have kept California isolated from the growing sources of domestic crude production,” John Auers, executive vice president at Turner Mason & Co., said by phone from Dallas. “California refiners won’t be able to take advantage”’ of lower-priced domestic crude.

Growing imports mean that California refiners have some of the highest crude costs in the U.S., which are passed onto consumers in the form of higher gasoline prices, David Hackett, president of Irving, California-based Stillwater Associates, said in a phone interview.

Imported crude is priced off Brent, which was selling at less than a $1 premium to U.S. West Texas Intermediate Wednesday. While the lifting of restrictions on U.S. oil exports has narrowed the gap from as high as $15 a barrel in 2014, the spread between the grades could widen again when oil rises and U.S. shale oil production picks up, Hackett said.

Drivers in Los Angeles paid the highest pump prices in the U.S. for much of last year, exceeding $4 a gallon last summer, according to AAA.

Domestic Supply

Alaska supplied the state with 73,000 barrels a day of crude in 2015, about 12 percent of California’s total supply, state data show. That’s down from as high as 46 percent in the early 1990s and may fall further as Alaska’s production is forecast to drop to 319,100 barrels a day in 2023, down from almost 500,000 barrels a day this year, official data show.

California itself produced about 225,000 barrels a day in 2015, supplying about 36 percent of its own needs, according to state data. That’s a drop from 240,000 barrels a day in 2014. The decline in the state’s own production came as producers cut output amid falling oil prices and following the shutdown of the Plains All American pipeline near Santa Barbara after a spill curtailed about 38,000 barrels a day of offshore production, Stillwater’s Hackett said.

California could benefit from cheaper Midwestern oil if crude by rail terminals were built. New terminals planned for Santa Maria, Pittsburg and Benicia have been stymied by local opposition and regulatory holdups, Hackett said. In February, for example, Valero Energy Corp’s planned crude-by-rail project was rejected by a city commission.

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