Navigating the US Oil Export Debate

Trevor Houser and Jason Bordoff | January 16, 2015

Recent innovations in the oil and gas sector have catalyzed a renaissance in US production and a dramatic turnaround in America’s international energy trade position. US crude oil production has increased from 5 million barrels per day (b/d) in late 2006 to 9 million b/d in late 2014. Total petroleum production is over 12 million b/d, making the US the largest liquids supplier in the world. Rising production and declining petroleum consumption has reduced US import dependence from 60 percent to 26 percent over the past eight years.

Although the US will likely continue to consume more oil than we produce, and thus remain a net petroleum importer, there are growing concerns about the ability of the US refining system to absorb future growth in domestic crude production. Virtually all the recent and projected growth in US crude output is lighter weight and lower sulfur than the Canadian, Mexican, Venezuelan and Middle Eastern crudes many US refineries are currently configured to process. Refineries elsewhere in the world process light oil, but under current law, US crude oil exports are largely (though not entirely) prohibited. The growing mismatch between domestic crude supply and domestic refining capacity is prompting a re-evaluation of these export restrictions.

There are both proponents and opponents of increasing the amount of crude oil that can be exported from the United States. Domestic oil producers worry that without access to foreign markets, they will have to discount their oil to incentivize refiners to process it at existing facilities or cover the investment required to build new ones. Lower market prices for US crude producers could reduce upstream investment and future domestic production growth. Many refiners worry that allowing crude oil
exports will raise domestic crude prices, harm their competitiveness and reduce the incentive for new refining investments. Consumers worry that exporting oil could increase gasoline and diesel prices and leave them more vulnerable to future international supply disruptions. And some environmental groups worry that allowing exports will result in more shale development domestically and more greenhouse gas emissions globally.

This report, a collaboration between RHG and the Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP) at Columbia University reviews the origin and current form of US crude export restrictions and analyzes the energy market, economic, security, geopolitical, trade and environmental implications of modifying or lifting those restrictions.

Full RHG/CGEP Report

January 21 Release Event

Technical Appendix (PDF 0.3 mb)