Oil exports have become a hot button issue in Washington, DC once again. Oil producers in the U.S. are pushing Congress to lift a ban on exporting U.S. oil as they search for customers for their booming oil supplies.
Exporting oil may seem like a great idea and an easy vote, but the impact may not be what you think. Let's look at this debate from the points of view of three big players in this market: oil producers, oil refiners, and consumers.
Oil drillers might love it
In theory, having more potential customers for oil would be good for U.S. oil producers. Brent crude oil typically trades for a higher price than U.S. oil, as indicated by the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil price. Selling oil internationally could allow producers to exploit those higher prices.
But that arbitrage opportunity only works if Brent crude oil prices are significantly higher than WTI. The EIA estimates that a differential of more than $6-$8 per barrel between Brent crude oil and WTI crude oil prices will result in higher prices domestically if the oil export ban is lifted. The problem is, Brent crude isn't significantly higher than WTI today.
So lifting the oil export ban may not have a big impact immediately given current market prices. Some oil may be sent overseas, but it probably wouldn't be in large quantities in the current market.
Oil refiners would hate it
One potential impact of lifting the oil export ban would be lowering of the spread between oil prices and gasoline prices. As you can see below, oil prices have fallen much faster than gasoline prices, in part because refiners are buying up cheap oil to make refined products and then selling it overseas (which is legal).
Since 2002, the amount of refined product exported from the U.S. has risen from 984,000 barrels per day to 4,561,000 barrels per day so far in 2015. This is precisely because gasoline and refined product producers can export to international markets with higher demand. If market prices dictate that it would be efficient to send more crude oil and less refined products to foreign countries, then that's where the market will head.
Giving oil producers the same option to sell product overseas could reduce supply to refiners in the U.S. and increase crude oil prices. That may not be the intended effect of lifting these restrictions.
Consumers should hate exports
None of these scenarios would be good for U.S. gasoline consumers. Exporting more oil could raise oil prices, and with refiners still having the option of exporting refined products there's nothing to put downward pressure on gasoline prices.
Demand for oil in the U.S. is also increasing at a rate of about 400,000 barrels per day annually, so demand for refined products is rising here at home.
That means lifting the export ban would have the effect of lowering supply, and with demand already rising gasoline prices would likely go up. There's no positive impact on gasoline prices for consumers if the oil export ban is lifted.
Who is affected by lifting the oil export ban most?
Lifting the export ban would probably marginally help domestic oil producers, although it would just ease a little bit of the pain from falling oil prices. It would undoubtedly hurt U.S. refiners, who have been given a favorable market because they can export product -- and the ban means growing oil supply in the U.S. has nowhere to go. Consumers would also be negatively affected, although refiners are already exporting finished goods, so the impact on gasoline prices may not even be noticeable.
As with any policy change, there's an upside and a downside. In this case, lifting the ban on U.S. oil exports may seem like a good thing for the U.S. economy, but it could raise gasoline prices for all of us. Is that a trade-off you'd be willing to make?