Crude on the Go: One Look at Declining U.S. Imports

At the end of December, Valero (NYSE: VLO  ) announced it would send crude oil from the Gulf Coast of Texas up to one of its refineries in Quebec City. The oil Valero is moving is coming from the booming Eagle Ford shale play in Texas, and this news represents much more than just your run of the mill refinery press release.

Reviewing the Eagle Ford
Texas has long been known as an oily state, but what's going on in the Eagle Ford is impressive even by Texas standards. The Eagle Ford Shale slides across southern Texas from the Mexico border up into East Texas. Separated into three geologic bands, its prime oil window is found in the northernmost band, and that is where the action is concentrated right now.

Players like EOG Resources (NYSE: EOG  ) and Marathon Oil (NYSE: MRO  ) are attracted to the shale by some of the lowest production costs and biggest payouts in the American oil game right now. Average well costs are cheaper, and average peak production from these wells comes in higher than North America's other star play, the Bakken Shale.

As a result of these economics, there is a clamor in the industry to buy in and buildup Eagle Ford assets right now. Marathon, which doubled its production in the Eagle Ford in one quarter last year, is targeting production of 85,000 boepd, after finishing the third quarter of 2012 at 40,000 boepd. The company is directing a full third of its 2013 capital spending at the Eagle Ford in order to make that dream come true. It plans to drill 215-250 wells there next year.

Even the smaller exploration and production companies are telling a similar story. Forest Oil (NYSE: FST  ) announced last week that it intends to sell all of its South Texas properties, except for its holdings in the Eagle Ford. It is jettisoning the other assets to pay down debt and fund development in the shale, as well as the Texas panhandle.

Both analysts and industry executives expect companies to spend between $25 billion and $28 billion in the Eagle Ford in 2013 alone, a figure that represents about 27% of all oil and gas investment in the lower 48 states, according to Wood MacKenzie.

Bentek Energy, a division of Platts, estimates that taken together, crude oil and condensate production in the Eagle Ford reached more than 700,000 barrels per day in September, and could reach as high as 1.6 million barrels per day by 2016.

Oil coming, and going?
All of that oil is changing the U.S. import/export story. First of all, we don't really have an export story. In order to ship its Eagle Ford crude to Quebec, Valero needed special permission from the U.S. Department of Commerce, as it is illegal to export crude from the U.S. otherwise.

The crude Valero is sending to its 265,000 barrel per day Canadian refinery is of the light sweet variety. It is the same type of crude that the company typically imports from West Africa, and analysts expect the Valero Eagle Ford shipments to displace those same imports. The change will save the company $2 per barrel.

Displacing foreign imports is all the rage, and the Valero story is tangible evidence that backs up the statistics coming out of the Energy Information Administration. The agency has indicated that net liquid fuel imports, which include crude oil, fell to 7.5 million barrels per day in 2012. The EIA expects that number to continue to fall to 6 million barrels per day by 2014.

Look closer
The U.S. imports about $1 billion in oil per day, and though the volume of oil that we are importing is declining and may hit the lowest level we've seen in 25 years, the percentage of GDP we spend on oil is nowhere near historic lows. As Michael Levi points out in a recent post for the Council on Foreign Relations:

The result is clear: imports measured in value relative to the size of the economy aren't anywhere close to their 25-year lows. (This is because lower import volumes have been substantially offset by higher oil prices.) The result is that projected import spending as a fraction of the economy is higher than import spending was in 1973, the year of the first modern oil crisis.

Oil imports must come down much further -- Levi estimates by a factor of four -- before costs will hit a meaningful 25-year low.

Crucial to reaching that goal will be the increased production addressed in this article. But, it will also mean decreasing consumption, something that is easier said than done in the face of growing supply.

Foolish takeaway
The energy world has long been unpredictable, but the changes we could see over the next 10 years in oil production, the expanding use of natural gas, and the development of renewables could mean big changes in our economy. For investors, it is increasingly important to put headlines in perspective, to separate the signal from the noise, and ultimately sort out what these changes really mean.

Companies like Enterprise Products Partners, are building pipelines to get cheap American crude out to refiners. Often forgotten in the energy story, companies like Enterprise, with its superior integrated asset base, can profit from the massive bottlenecks in takeaway capacity by taking on large-scale projects. To help investors decide whether Enterprise Products Partners is a buy or a sell today, click here now to check out The Motley Fool's brand new premium research report on the company.


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