The chorus of voices to have the United States end its oil export ban is growing louder by the day. Last week, ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) CEO Ryan Lance publicly highlighted the positives of eliminating the ban, which would include American consumers saving $18 billion per year at the pump. However, he also warned of the danger of inaction if the 1970s-era ban stays in place. That ban, which was enacted when American oil production was declining, is causing oil produced in the U.S. to trade at a growing discount to oil traded on the global market. According to Lance, "The discount would ultimately threaten the producing industry's ability to make investments in new crude supplies. In short, it could shut down the energy boom." This suggests that instead of seeing an even bigger discount at the pump, the savings we're currently enjoying -- thanks to the oil boom -- could soon vanish.
Problems on the horizon
The United States has enjoyed a remarkable rise in oil production thanks to the combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, which is unlocking oil found in tight shale rocks. The following chart illustrates the breathtaking surge in oil output in recent years, which could continue if the export ban is rescinded: enabling American oil production to reach its full potential.
However, the type of oil produced from shale is a lighter form, and soon we will have more of it than our refineries are equipped to handle. As the following slide shows, production of light crude oil is expected to outpace U.S. refining capacity by 2017.
In fact, seasonally, the oil markets are already oversaturated with light oil during refinery turnarounds and outages. This is why the U.S. oil benchmark, West Texas Intermediate, or WTI, trades at a discount to Brent crude. This discount is only expected to grow wider if oil exports remain prohibited.
That will put a big damper on America's growing oil industry. Not only will the industry need to slow production growth due to saturated refining capacity, but the opportunity for additional growth from exports will continue to be closed down as well.
Why more growth could be better
Producers see that additional growth capacity having a big future impact. It's estimated that eliminating the export ban would enable producers to pump out another 1.5 million to 3 million barrels of oil per day from American shale plays by the end of the decade. That would be a 10%-20% jump in production from current projections. Such a move would certainly put a lot of cash into the pockets of U.S. producers. However, oil companies would not be alone in gaining from oil exports.
The following ConocoPhillips slide lists five measurable positive impacts from exporting American crude oil.
Probably the most surprising benefit from the list is the $18 billion per year drivers would save at the pump by exporting U.S. excess oil. However, the reason we'd see these savings is because gas prices are based on the Brent global crude oil benchmark, as opposed to the currently cheaper U.S. oil benchmark, WTI. So, by exporting American oil it would cause the Brent oil benchmark price to fall back in line with WTI, and allow gas prices in America to come down.
The following chart from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows a noticeable gap between WTI and Brent prices developing over the past few years.
What this chart is showing is that even as the gap between WTI and Brent widens, gas prices haven't really budged. This is because gasoline can already be exported, so it trades globally as opposed to being based on local oil prices. As noted in the EIA report’s findings, exporting U.S. oil would not necessarily translate into higher gas prices for consumers as some might expect. This provides added leverage for oil companies to put increased pressure on ending the export ban.
Exports are becoming a priority
This is why oil CEOs are making it a priority to have the oil export ban overturned. In fact, the CEO of fellow U.S. oil producer Pioneer Natural Resources, Scott Sheffield, said that it is his company's "No. 1 priority to get the export ban lifted next year in 2015." So, we can expect the pressure from oil company CEOs to continue to mount as the new Congress takes over in the new year. Oil company CEOs have the data on their side that exports aren't only necessary for keeping this economic growth engine running, but that there are far fewer negatives than most Americans realize.