The American Shale Revolution has put the US in a position of economic strength. Because of increased US oil production, economists are touting a resurgence in the manufacturing sector, a decrease in unemployment, and a stabilization of gasoline prices. A recent report from the Department of Commerce states that while the trade deficit for goods and services was 12% worse as of December 2013, the US imported 9.2% less crude oil in 2013 that in 2012. This is the lowest total since the mid 1990s.
This brings us to the current conundrum – how to continue to capitalize on the economic strength of these energy gains. Do we refine or export the glut of light sweet crude coming out of our soil?
In late 1973, OPEC instituted an oil embargo which launched the US into a fuel crisis. As a result, the US Government banned the overseas exportation of US crude oil in 1975. This ban, still in effect 39 years later, is coming under review on Capitol Hill. Oil companies eager to sell crude overseas are pushing for the ban to be relaxed while smaller independent refineries favor the current scenario and the freedom to sell refined products overseas.
Many US refineries, while originally designed to process heavy crudes from Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Canada, are adapting to handle more of the domestic crude. The process of retooling a refinery is not a quick, easy, or an inexpensive undertaking. Until the current policy changes, we will continue to be saturated with the light sweet crude, unable to export it, and without the refining capacity to handle the volume.
Do we build or do we export? That is the question.