We're about to start shipping oil out, but that probably won't solve the oil industry problems.
We're about to start shipping oil out, but that probably won't solve the oil industry problems.

The U.S. is Exporting Oil Again After 40 Years (So What?)

It's official: The first crude oil to ship out from the Gulf Coast since the 40-year U.S. oil export ban was lifted last week will go out from the Houston Ship Channel.

On Wednesday Enterprise Products Partners announced that it has secured its first contract to tote about 600,000 barrels of light sweet crude (most likely some of the same crude they've been producing at a loss in the shale plays in Texas and North Dakota). The company has agreed to provide pipeline and marine terminal services to get the oil on board and then they're slated to load the crude onto a cargo ship at the Enterprise Hydrocarbon Terminal at the Houston Ship Channel the first week in January.

"We are excited to announce our first contract to export U.S. crude oil, which to our knowledge may be the first export cargo of U.S. crude oil from the Gulf Coast in almost 40 years," said A.J. "Jim" Teague, chief operating officer of Enterprise, according to Reuters. 

The export ban stretches back to 1975 when the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (aka OPEC) was in charge of the oil supply and had developed a habit of denying the United States oil from time to time with embargoes. Back then the country's daily production was no match for its consumption of oil and American production was declining. So Congress stepped in, the reasoning going that if we stopped sending out oil, prices would drop and we'd have secured supply and national security in one fell swoop. 

Of course, it didn't exactly work out like that. In the past decade hydraulic fracturing and slant drilling unlocked oil trapped in the dense brittle shale formations in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas and the Baaken in North Dakota. It send a glut of light sweet crude onto the market, but the shale oil was selling as much as $25 below global prices because there were infrastructure bottle necks in the United States and the ban meant producers couldn't sell the oil to other countries.

Of course producers lobbied hard in Congress to get the ban lifted, but they didn't have any luck until last week when it was bundled in as part of the budget packet. 

The thing is, that export ban was a real problem when there was a chance of selling shale oil for a better price on the global market the past few years. In recent weeks the the oil prices here and overseas are about the same, so the chance to sell the oil for more money in another country has pretty much evaporated. At the same time there are signs that U.S. oil production, influenced by some of the lowest prices seen in a decade, is finally slowing down, according to Reuters. Because of that, Enterprise is one of the first to step up and make a deal to export oil — it's unclear where the crude is actually going — but there probably won't be a whole lot of companies that follow suit.  

Why? Well, as of right now the United States is still guzzling about 19 million barrels of oil per day right here, says Ed Hirs, an energy economist with the University of Houston. “It's just somebody else to swap crude with. Is this going to impact the U.S. market? The answer is no. Even if we managed to start exporting 1 million barrels per day we would have to import 1 million barrels a day for our own needs."

"This amount of oil that Enterprise is sending out is nothing," Hirs says. “We export one 600,000 barrel tanker, big deal.”

Besides, even though U.S. oil production is finally slowing down, there's a glut of oil tucked away in storage that will have to be taken out and put on the market soon, so there will still be plenty of oil sloshing around the market, Hirs says.

“At this point, the cost of oil storage is beginning to eat people up. Last spring we got a bunch of financial players who bought crude at what they thought was a low price and sold it forward at a high price. A bunch of people were trying to play this game but the oil prices haven't recovered and at some point these people are going to have to cut their losses, take the oil out of storage and start selling.” 

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