Oil Markets Stabilize: What It Means for U.S. Exporters
This past New Year’s Eve, while millions of Americans attended parties, sipped champagne and watched the ball drop in New York’s Times Square, a crude oil tanker christened the Theo T departed from Port Corpus Christi, Texas, carrying the first U.S. export load of crude oil in 40 years.
It was able to do so because the ban on exporting U.S. crude had been lifted just one month earlier.
The timing was fortunate, not just for domestic crude producers facing storage challenges for what has been characterized as a glut of supply, but also given the stabilization of the overall oil market after a decade of fluctuation.
Despite temporary hiccups like the five-percent drop in crude benchmarks in the wake of the Brexit vote, and challenges arising from eroding refinery profit margins, oil is stable, and stable is always a preferred status for exporters and investors alike.
Since the Theo T left port, U.S crude oil exports to countries other than Canada (which had been excluded from the ban) have increase sevenfold.
Japan and Italy were the biggest buyers, each receiving more than one-million barrels.
Even the Caribbean island of Curacao receives 75,000 barrels a day, though much of that winds up in nearby Venezuela, a nation that has suffered great reversals of fortune since former president Hugo Chavez boasting of supplying heating oil to needy U.S. households.
Exports would likely surge even higher were it not for a global oversupply that brought crude prices to 13 year lows earlier in 2016.
Imports, Exports and Energy Independence
Energy has always been a political football. In an already tumultuous election year, Democrats continue their outspoken support for clean energy alternatives to oil, while Republicans clamor for energy independence through maximizing domestic oil production, reducing our reliance on imports from countries with ties to terrorism.
But the realities of the market are more nuanced than what is communicated in a candidate’s stump speech. The U.S. welcomes the opportunity to now export more crude, but will also continue to import oil. The lighter crude produced domestically is different from the heavy crude the U.S. now receives from elsewhere, and that is what domestic refineries are configured to process.
The other challenge is a lack of pipelines for transporting U.S. oil within North America, a problem exacerbated by the current administration’s opposition to the Keystone pipeline system. As a result, importing oil is now a cheaper means to meet our energy needs than transporting domestic supply by rail.
Energy independence is still a worthy goal, however, even if/when oil prices start trending back up. This may be achieved by increasing our refining capacity for lighter crude, or by reducing our demand through continued expansion of alternative energy sources.
One thing seems certain: the U.S. will have no shortage of customers for its oil, which is obviously great news for exporters. Supply is already headed for Europe, and industry experts foresee expansion into Asian and Latin American markets. That may have a negative impact on the Russian market for crude, which will be perceived unofficially as a fringe benefit given the temperamental state of U.S.-Russia relations.
With millions of barrels of U.S. oil entering the international market for the first time in decades, Iran becoming a potential player after sanctions were eased, and OPEC scrambling to maintain its market share, no one can predict for certain how long the markets will remain stable. But for U.S. exporters, it’s a good time to be in business.
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