Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Should the US Become An Oil Exporter, Again?

Last week I missed attending a fascinating panel on the growth of US oil production, hosted by  the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, I was able to catch most of the live webcast, which is still available for replay. Much of the discussion focused on the potential of new "tight oil" production techniques, similar to those used to extract shale gas, to help usher in a new period of relative oil abundance.  If this comes to pass, among other things it could challenge long-established views about exporting US oil.  The politics of oil exports look absolutely dire at the moment, but the economic and logistical benefits--not just for oil companies but to the nation--are such that we shouldn't dismiss the possibility lightly.

Two hours was not enough time to do justice to all the ramifications of resurgent US oil production, and I know from following the Twitter feed for the event that some in the web audience were frustrated by the limited attention given to the climate implications of these developments.  However, if you'd like an overview of the possible economic and geopolitical impact of the US becoming more self-sufficient in petroleum for at least the next decade or two, this stellar panel was highly informative and worth your time.  Much of the discussion focused on tight oil, liquid hydrocarbons trapped in rocks that can't be economically tapped by conventional drilling, but that have proved susceptible to combinations of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing similar to those that have unleashed the current shale gas boom. Although the full potential of this resource hasn't been reflected in the latest forecasts from the Energy Information Agency (EIA) of the US Department of Energy, the results from the Bakken shale in the Dakotas and the Eagle Ford shale in Texas are instructive.  Together these two fields now produce around 750,000 barrels per day, or 12% of current US crude oil output, up from just a trickle a few years ago.  They also hold billions, and possibly tens of billions of barrels of recoverable resources.

I was a little surprised that the first panelist to mention the possibility of exporting some of this oil--with appropriate caveats--was Adam Sieminski, the newly confirmed EIA Administrator. After all, current US law restricts the export of most US crude oil production, with special exceptions for some oil from Alaska, California, and near the Canadian border.  In practice, crude exports from those fields have declined to very low levels.  Despite that, and even after significant reductions in imports since the onset of the recession, the US is still a major net oil importer.  If that's the case, and if US refineries can benefit from the increasing domestic output, why would we even consider exporting any of this new oil?

Unfortunately, the answer doesn't reduce to a neat soundbite; it depends on two key factors that require a bit of explanation.  The first issue is the quality of the oil coming out of these tight oil plays, which at least so far has been very high. Oil from different fields varies as much as fingerprints, even when we consider only a few characteristics of concern to refiners, and these differences strongly influence the market values of the various grades of oil.  Light crudes refine easily into valuable products like gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, while heavier crudes require more processing, using more expensive hardware, and often yield large quantities of low-value products like petroleum coke, even after intensive refining. There's also sulfur content--the sweet to sour spectrum that overlays the light/heavy distinctions--as well as other impurities.  Eagle Ford crude is light and sweet, as is the North Dakota Sweet crude produced from the Bakken. These crudes compare favorably with West Texas Intermediate (WTI), Brent and other premium crude streams.

The second, related factor involves the complexity of US oil refineries and the crude diet they've evolved to run. As production of high quality crudes in the continental US declined over the last four decades, many refiners invested billions of dollars to enable their facilities to run some of the heaviest, most sour crudes from around the world, because these were more readily available and usually significantly cheaper than the light sweet crudes.  This trend was particularly evident on the West Coast and Gulf Coast. The addition of complex processing hardware like hydrocrackers, delayed or fluid cokers, and residuum fluid catalytic crackers has given these refineries tremendous flexibility, but it also increased their operating costs and made it harder for them to go back to a diet of much lighter crudes.  As a result, while many of them could handle significant quantities of light crude from the tight oil fields, this would be less than optimal, resulting in economic penalties and perhaps eroding the advantages that have recently enabled gulf coast refiners to capitalize on export markets for their products. Those penalties would translate into discounts for the tight oil grades, compared to similar international crudes, much like the large gap in value we currently see for WTI compared to Brent, though for different reasons as discussed previously.

At current production levels, the mismatch of quality and capabilities isn't as big a problem as the lack of infrastructure for transporting these crudes to market.  That has resulted in discounts so large that it makes sense for private equity firm Carlyle to plan to ship large quantities of Bakken crude by rail from North Dakota to the Philadelphia refinery they've just acquired from Sunoco.  However, if tight oil output grows in line with forecasts such as those in a recent analysis from Citibank, domestic sweet crude refiners will have more than enough supply and the excess must either be sold to heavy crude refineries at a discount or left in the ground.  That's where exports come in. 

The last time exporting domestic crude became a big issue was in the late 1980s, when output from Alaska's North Slope (ANS) field reached peak levels of roughly 2 million barrels per day, far more than west coast refineries could absorb. I was trading crude on the West Coast at the time, and I observed first-hand the effects of the export restrictions that had been put in place when the Trans Alaska Pipeline was originally approved.  Those restrictions didn't just depress the price of ANS crude; they also depressed the price of the California crudes with which ANS competed, and made both types less attractive to produce. West coast consumers benefited from a few years of lower gasoline prices than they would have otherwise paid, but the net result was less industry investment and probably higher oil imports in the long run.  By the time ANS exports were finally approved in 1996, the field was already in decline and the biggest opportunity had been missed. 

The advantages of allowing a portion of these new tight-oil streams to be exported would derive from the difference between the global market premium for crude of this quality and the typical discount paid for the lower-quality crudes that gulf coast refiners would continue to import in order to optimize their product yields and costs.  A difference of just $5 per barrel across a million barrels per day of exports would translate into a nearly $2 billion per year improvement in the US trade balance.  The benefits might also include higher tax revenues and royalties if exports supported higher production.  The biggest drawback I see is that in the event of a global supply disruption, some domestic crude would be committed to non-US buyers, reducing our emergency cushion.  However, that problem might be circumvented by requiring exporters to include provisions in their contracts allowing them to suspend deliveries whenever the US government released oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, or a similar contingency.

Perhaps the best summary of the benefits that US oil exports could provide was given by President Clinton, when he authorized exports from the Alaskan North Slope: "Permitting this oil to move freely in international commerce will contribute to economic growth, reduce dependence on imported oil and create new jobs for American workers."  It's probably premature to provide a similar exemption for tight oil now, but it's certainly not too soon to start the national debate that should precede such a decision.