By Bill Loveless
U.S. crude oil is increasingly finding markets around the world now that government restrictions on exports have been dissolved. That’s good news for U.S. producers who had sought more access to global oil markets for years, though it’s too early to tell how much of a trend is developing. Nonetheless, exports of U.S. crude averaged 501,000 barrels a day for the first five months of 2016, according to a report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, citing the most recent data available.
That’s 43,000 barrels a day — or 9% — more than the average for all of 2015, when government regulations limited crude oil exports mostly to Canada.
“U.S. crude oil exports have occurred despite relatively small price spreads between international crude oils and domestic crude oils, as well as other factors that should reduce crude oil exports, such as falling U.S. crude oil production and added cargo export costs,” the EIA said.
Canada remains by far the biggest foreign market for U.S. crude, accounting for 296,000 barrels of the 501,000 daily average.
But demand for U.S. oil is growing elsewhere. In fact, exports to Canada lagged those to non-Canadian markets in March and May, the EIA data show.
In all, U.S. shippers found customers in 16 countries since December when Congress eliminated curbs on crude oil exports that were implemented in 1974 in the wake of the Arab oil embargo.
The biggest new market for U.S. crude oil from January to May was Curacao, a Caribbean island just north of Venezuela. Sales averaged 54,000 barrels a day.
Curacao is home to a refinery owned by Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state-owned oil company of Venezuela, which has a capacity of 330,000 barrels a day. The light U.S. oil is probably being blended with heavier Venezuelan oil for processing at the refinery or re-export to PDVSA customers, the EIA said, citing trade reports.
The second biggest non-Canadian destination for U.S. oil exports was the Netherlands, a large refining and petroleum product trading hub. In all, an average of 39,000 barrels a day was shipped there.
Other Western European markets for U.S. oil included Italy, France and the United Kingdom.
Also among the top markets for U.S. oil exports — and a surprising one — was the Marshall Islands, with an average of 14,000 barrels a day through May.
With no refineries, the Marshall Islands may be the site of ship-to-ship transfers of oil for delivery to Asian ports or a point where cargoes could await buyers in Asia, the EIA said.
The opportunities came despite near parity in U.S. and global oil prices and a decline in U.S. oil production.
From January through early August, the West Texas Intermediate price for oil averaged just 31 cents less than the Brent benchmark, a much smaller advantage for U.S. shippers than had existed before.
U.S. oil production fell because of low prices, from 9.7 million barrels a day in April 2015 to 8.6 million barrels a day in July, according to the EIA.
Those factors may have been offset somewhat by opportunities arising from today’s topsy-turvy oil markets. For example, the EIA noted that recent prices for booking tankers for spot oil shipments were the lowest since 2009.
But “sustained and significant increases” in U.S. crude oil exports will probably require more production here and a much wider Brent-WTI spread, something that the EIA doesn’t see happening for at least the rest of the year.
“The jury’s still out on that one,” said Mason Hamilton, the principal author of the EIA report. “It will probably take another six months or so before we know.”