Industry-sponsored report finds U.S. should permit oil exports

A distant oil platform off Elmer’s Island, La.
A distant oil platform off Elmer’s Island, La. MCT

The long-standing ban on selling American crude oil overseas is aggravating the effects of an oil-price collapse that could jeopardize the U.S. energy boom, influential energy historian Daniel Yergin argues in a new report.

The report, released today by IHS Energy, a consulting firm led by Yergin, also maintains that dropping the ban on oil exports will help the entire energy supply chain, from construction to banking, with Texas and California getting the most benefit and even states such as Florida and Washington, which aren’t significant petroleum producers, enjoying spinoff effects.

“Continued growth in the oil and gas industry and in the supply chain supporting it could be imperiled by low prices and outdated crude-oil export policies that restrain market access and hinder future investment and production,” the report says.

The IHS study was funded by energy and oilfield service companies, including Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Continental Resources, Exxon Mobil and Halliburton. The industry is pushing hard for Congress to lift the export ban, which was imposed in the wake of the 1970s Arab oil embargo with the idea of protecting consumers from higher gasoline prices.

The industry argues that the ban is a relic of failed price-control efforts and is especially outdated now that the United States is an oil superpower, drilling so much that it helped create a global glut that sent prices crashing.

“While low prices are the primary challenge facing the industry in 2015, the ban on exports of U.S. crude-oil production will hinder or even cut short any recovery tomorrow,” according to the IHS report.

U.S. oil producers could make more money by selling abroad. The international benchmark price of oil is averaging $7 to $12 a barrel higher than the domestic price for American crude oil.

The difference hurts the competitiveness of U.S. drillers and investment, according to IHS, especially with the price collapse putting wells already near the break-even point for being profitable.

“It really is the difference between the economic viability of investment and the nonviability,” Yergin said in an interview.

U.S. Gulf Coast refineries are set up more to handle heavier grades of crude oil than the lighter-grade oil that’s surging into the market from the booming shale-production areas in Texas and North Dakota, according to IHS, and that has resulted in the light American oil being sold at a discount.

Politicians are increasingly interested in lifting the export ban, with the Senate Energy Committee scheduling a hearing on the issue this Thursday. But neither Congress nor the White House is ready to risk the political backlash of ending a policy that was sold as protecting consumers.