Oil export ban dying slowly

The four-decade-old ban on most crude exports from the U.S., now the world’s largest producer, will be weakened bit by bit as government rulings allow exceptions, say energy analysts including IHS Inc.

The Commerce Department’s permission for Enterprise Products Partners LP and Pioneer Natural Resources Co. to ship abroad ultra-light oil known as condensate foreshadows a chain of incremental actions that will chip away at the restriction until it’s obsolete. As much as 1.2 million barrels a day may be freed for export on the recent rulings alone.

The ban was passed by Congress in 1975 in response to the Arab oil embargo that cut global supplies, quadrupled crude prices and created gasoline shortages in the U.S. at a time when the country’s own crude production was shrinking. Now that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are unleashing record volumes of light oil from U.S. shale formations and a glut of crude is pooling along the Gulf Coast, federal policy makers are facing increasing pressure to ease the restriction.

“They’re going to try and get around the export ban in a lot of ways, case by case, without lifting it,” Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst for the London-based research firm Energy Aspects Ltd., said by telephone from London July 16. “There are a lot of things they can do to alleviate this light crude overhang.”

Rising output

U.S. crude production has surged to the highest level since 1986, propelled by the boom in “tight oil” drawn from low-permeable rock that now accounts for almost half of the total. Output of tight oil, almost all of which is light, will rise annually through 2021, peaking at 4.8 million barrels a day, the Energy Information Administration projects.

That may be a conservative prediction considering shale output has surpassed estimates over the past several years, Jason Bordoff, founding director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said. “There’s reason to be optimistic that actual production may continue to exceed forecasts,” he said at an EIA conference in Washington July 14.

West Texas Intermediate crude for August delivery fell 13 cents to $103.06 a barrel at 12:36 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Policy makers have been eating away at the U.S. export ban for decades, said Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of the Englewood, Colorado-based consulting firm IHS. The prohibition was enacted to protect the price controls on oil and products including gasoline imposed because of the Arab embargo and to block Alaskan oil from being sent to Japan, he said.

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