Suspected Pirates Surrender

The possibility of the Obama administration lifting the crude oil export embargo, to allow U.S. energy companies access to the world market, is finally a reality.

Alaska Republican, and head of the Senate energy committee, Lisa Murkowski, drove the discussion this month when she called the ban “antiquated, and at times, absurd.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Our trade laws date back to the early 20th century. But, our world has changed. I’m on the ground, seeing our energy picture from a granular level. I’m also mindful of energy policy development in DC.

The Energy Picture has Changed

We are free from foreign oil. We just need to accept that and capitalize on our newfound resources and global positioning.

We are producing more crude thanks to shale formations in Texas and North Dakota, and we’re importing less oil. Exports of petroleum products are at record levels, says the Energy Information Administration while imports are at record lows.

In its Jan 8 weekly petroleum report, the independent statistical arm of the Department of Energy estimates that U.S. crude oil production averaged 7.5 million barrels per day in 2013, the highest annual average rate of production since 1989.

EIA predicts “continued strong production growth.”

EIA projects crude oil production to average 8.5 million barrels per day in 2014 and 9.3 million barrels per day in 2015, “which would be the highest annual rate of crude oil production since 1972.”

The record highest annual average crude oil production was 9.6 million barrels per day in 1970, EIA says.

Those are the facts.

In a white paper, the senator said American independent oil and gas producers are forced to store excess crude, or unfairly sell it below market prices, instead of selling it on the global market, like everyone else.

She credited our “technology prowess, and American grit,” for the major resurgence in our energy sector.

It’s true. We can produce more because we have improved our technology.

And, I believe should live with a mindset of abundance, not one of scarcity, rooted in the mid-1970s, when OPEC strangled our country and caused us to pass the export ban in the first place.

There’s a larger moral here about choosing self-sufficiency versus dependence and seeing the glass half full.

Numbers Don’t Lie

But, let’s look at more numbers.

In its 2014 Energy Outlook, EIA said U.S. production would rise by 800,000 barrels per day every year until 2016.

In 2019, domestic production of crude oil should account for 63 percent of total supplies. That’s startling considering that in 2011, domestic crude covered 38 percent of total U.S. supplies.

That means we have enough oil to supply our own country and sell it abroad.

Michael Levi, a thoughtful writer and analyst of the energy sector decided in his November 2013 blog about exports, “The ‘Oil Abundance’ Narrative is Wrong,” that we shouldn’t take the risk and lift the ban. But he does not argue with the numbers.

He says, “The country has passed Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest liquid fuels producer and is now producing more oil than it imports. The rise in U.S. output, which is poised to continue, is good news for the economy and national security. It’s also something that leaders need to adjust to as they develop policy and strategy.”

Nothing to Fear

The opponents seem only to base their opinion on fear–fear of rising prices.

Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey told President Obama in a letter that he’s scared gasoline prices will increase if we start exporting domestic crude.

Maybe this will assuage some fears.

Here’s a brief description of oil markets.

More supply into world markets equals downward pressure on global oil prices. More certainty and support from the U.S. government means oil investors would invest in new technology to increase and make more efficient oil production.

If refiners are on board, that all means lower gasoline prices and lower prices for petroleum products, both of which mean lower prices for goods and services for all Americans.

Who’s not on Board?

More production requires more workers, which means more jobs and services for those workers, and in turn, more revenue for communities.

If I’m not mistaken, Senator Menendez’s state could use more work; its unemployment lingers under eight percent, and 170 oil refinery workers lost their jobs less than a year ago when Hess closed its last commercial refinery at Port Reading.

There’s the other opponent–select refineries.

Some refiners do not want to lose their discounted crude supply. Who can blame them?

The EIA says companies exported about 3 million barrels of petroleum products per day, almost a 150 percent increase since 2008.

And, in 2011, U.S. refiners exported more petroleum products, on an annual basis, than it imported for the first time since 1949, thanks to improved drilling technologies, including fracking shale.

The National Journal reports that refined products brought in a record-high of more than $11 billion in October. And, in 2012, refined petroleum products were the single-largest exported product out of the United States; 2013 should reflect the same.

Some refiners are selling low-sulfur diesel from West Texas Intermediate crude to a non-American audience—Central and South American countries that need low-sulfur diesel to meet tougher air-quality standards.

Others are shipping out gasoline, heating oil, jet fuel, diesel fuel and other petroleum derivatives to as far away as Africa and, yes, the Middle East.

The volume is astounding.

Refiners can thank U.S. producers using hydraulic fracturing of shale for that improved outlook, at least the ones that can process the oil shale and bitumen.

That’s an issue that stung Alaska Senator Murkowski.

“The U.S. can export coal to the Netherlands, Morocco, and Germany; distillate fuel to France, Chile, and Argentina; petroleum coke to Turkey and China; gasoline to Colombia, Brazil, and Panama; jet fuel to Britain, Israel, and Nigeria; natural gas to Canada and Mexico; and, natural gas liquids to Switzerland, Honduras, and Aruba,” she said.

In its January 7, 2014 economic analysis, the Commerce Department said the U.S. has a trade deficit of $34.3 billion.

Lifting the crude oil ban would change that.

Refineries are split on this issue of exports.

Over the past several years, refineries like Hess’ on the East Coast refine light sweet crude from the Middle East and South America. But, like Hess, several major refineries were shuttered. East coast refiners were faced with increased environmental regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency, declining profit margins because of the drop in U.S. crude imports, and lower demand for gasoline.

Meanwhile, only a handful of refineries have upgraded their facilities to handle oil from shale development or the complex hybrids that come from bitumen from Utah or Canadian oil sands.

In order to thrive in this new environment, refiners must upgrade their facilities. But, what refiners are going to spend billions of dollars to upgrade their facilities to process shale oil or bitumen when they can’t get the oil transported to their facilities?

Enter the contentious Keystone XL pipeline project.

Some opponents to lifting the crude oil export ban want to hamstring the oil and gas producers, but they also want to hamstring the refiners who can’t process shale oil or bitumen by limiting transportation.

Lifting the crude export ban actually means plenty of growth for the entire sector.

The crude oil export ban must be lifted.

Chris Faulkner is the Founder and CEO of Dallas-based Breitling Energy Corporation, an oil and natural gas exploration and production company.  Mr. Faulkner’s diverse and extensive background in the oil and gas industry in North America, Europe and the Middle East covers all aspects of oil and gas operations, including project management, production, facilities, drilling and business development. Mr. Faulkner serves as an advisor to the ECF Asia Shale Committee and sits on the Board of Directors for the North Texas Commission.