Did the Obama administration just quietly lift the four-decade old ban on U.S. crude oil exports? Not quite.
On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal and Reuters reported that the Commerce Department issued a private letter ruling allowing Pioneer Natural Resources and Enterprise Products Partners to export unrefined crude oil that comes from the Eagle Ford geological region of Texas.
But the Energy Information Administration later noted that Commerce had issued the ruling about ultra-light crude (known as oil condensates) that had been put through a stabilization unit to make them safe for transportation and storage. This isn't like pouring the oil into a huge sophisticated refinery, but the stabilization unit does include a distillation process in which the oil is heated and some of the lightest components removed. According to Commerce, that puts the Eagle Ford oil condensates into the category of refined petroleum products. There are no limits on U.S. exports of refined petroleum products.
The Commerce ruling initially clears the way for as little as 20,000 barrels a day of new condensate exports but that could rise to as much as 200,000 barrels a day, the estimated Gulf coast capacity of stabilization units, according to an analyst report by Citigroup.
“This is much ado about nothing in my view,” said David Goldwyn, head of Goldwyn Global Strategies and former assistant secretary of State for energy matters. “This is a commodity classification decision, not a breaking of the dam or a change in policy.”
“This is hardly a major change in the crude oil export ban,” said Robert McNally, founder of the Rapidan Group consulting firm which has advised Pioneer Natural on this issue. “The broader issue of easing the crude oil export ban is not settled.”
Still, the Citigroup report to investors said that it was a “notable step towards greater crude exports.”
Why is so much attention being paid to this? The Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 signed by President Ford blocked exports of U.S. crude oil (and natural gas) but allowed the president to exempt shipments “which he determines to be consistent with the national interest.” There were a few minor exceptions, such as limited exports from Alaska or to Canada. With the United States importing vast quantities of oil to meet consumption, the export ban wasn’t a big issue.
But with the surge in U.S. domestic oil production, the U.S. oil industry has been loudly demanding that the Obama administration lift the de facto ban on crude oil exports. The reason lies in the nature of the new production in the United States, which has come largely from shale rock. In the Bakken region in North Dakota, that oil has been light. In the Eagle Ford in south Texas, about 70 percent of it falls into a category called condensates, which are ultra-light hydrocarbons.
Even though the United States remains a major net oil importer, certain types of light, high quality crude oil are better suited for refineries in Europe while the modern refineries on the U.S. gulf coast are built to handle cheaper, heavy, low-quality grades of crude. The drop in Libyan high-quality crude exports because of political disarray there has left many of Libya’s European refinery customers thirsty for new supplies and European trade negotiators have also been pressing the Obama administration to loosen the crude oil export ban. And the U.S. producers of those Eagle Ford condensates – led by big independent oil companies like Pioneer Natural -- are having trouble finding customers in the United States and that type of oil is selling at deep discounts.
There is one existing market for the condensates: Canada. Edward Morse, global head of commodities research at Citigroup, estimates that the United States exports about 270,000 barrels a day of light condensates to mix with heavy Canadian oil from the oil sands so that it isn't too thick to flow through a pipeline. Speaking at a panel discussion at Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy last week, Morse estimated that those condensate shipments could reach 400,000 barrels a day by the end of the year. Some of that Canadian oil is eventually exported to world markets mixed with U.S. condensates, he said.
Proponents of free trade say that lifting the crude oil export ban would make the oil market more efficient and lower prices worldwide. IHS, a private consulting firm, issued a report saying that lifting the export ban would also sharply increase U.S. oil production and create jobs. "The 1970s-era policy restricting crude oil exports -- a vestige from a price controls system that ended in 1981 -- is a remnant from another time," Daniel Yergin, author of "The Quest" and vice chairman of IHS, said when the report was released.
Opponents of exports, however, say it will raise gasoline prices in the United States. And indeed the price of the U.S. benchmark crude oil, West Texas Intermediate, for August delivery climbed 0.72 percent to $106.79 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Wednesday after rising more early in the day on optimism about additional exports.
Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said that the Commerce decision “puts America on a slippery slope to send more of our oil abroad, even at a time when the Middle East is in disarray and tensions are running high with Russia. We should keep our resources here at home for American families and businesses, not send this oil abroad even as we import oil from dangerous regions of the world.”
Markey added that “Congress put this oil export ban in place. It should be Congress that decides when and how to change it, not through a private ruling by the Commerce Department without public debate.”
The Commerce Department ruling “will have a limited initial impact,” said Greg Priddy, an oil analyst at the Eurasia Group. “The confirmation of this relatively liberal interpretation of current rules on condensates by the Department of Commerce will provide some relief to the glut of condensates on the US Gulf Coast, but this is definitely not a game changing shift in policy which would open the floodgates on exports.”