U.S. crude oil imports are down 23 percent since production from tight oil plays started to increase in 2008. While some industry officials and observers wonder if the U.S. should position itself as an energy superpower, the debate may be influenced in large part by domestic refiners.
"The issue of crude oil exports is under consideration," U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said from a two-day energy summit in South Korea.
U.S. oil exports are restricted by legislation enacted in response to an oil embargo from Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in the 1970s.
OPEC, in its May market report, said total U.S. crude oil imports dropped from an average 10.08 million barrels per day in January 2008 to 7.76 million bpd in December, 2013. That decline is in part a response to the increase in crude oil production from shale reserve areas in the United States. Of the six most prolific shale basins in the United States, only the Haynesville play is expected to hold its production level steady; the other five should see an increase.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said the Eagle Ford basin in southern Texas and the Permian basin, which straddles the Texas border with New Mexico, should post a combined 48,000 bpd production increase in June. Next month, the Bakken play, which sits on the border between North Dakota and Montana, should see production increase by 22,000 bpd to reach 1.07 million bpd, EIA said.
Six shale basins -- Permian, Eagle Ford, Bakken, Niobrara, Haynesville and Marcellus -- accounted for almost 90 percent of oil production growth since 2011. OPEC, in its market report, said North American oil production has increased five years in a row and U.S. oil production is now at its highest rate since 1972.
In April, Erik Milito, director of upstream operations for the American Petroleum Institute, said oil exports would make the United States a "global energy superpower." But Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworks lobby, said the previous month that lifting the ban would harm domestic refiners who may be forced to pay higher prices for domestic oil.
Right now, U.S. refiners who utilize regional crude enjoy a lower price than for oil sourced from overseas markets. Since January, when TransCanada's Marketlink pipeline came online, the gap between the price for West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, and Brent, the overseas benchmark, has narrowed, however, and that discount in price is now lower.
U.S. oil production is on pace to increase, though the forecast for WTI is uncertain. As of May 13, it was holding steady about $100 per barrel. Moniz, the U.S. energy secretary, said several agencies are studying what role U.S. oil should play on the international stage. For now, however, it may be more of a downstream concern.
"A driver for this consideration is that the nature of the oil we're producing may not be well matched to our current refinery capacity," he said.
So while global influence is always a concern for Washington, issues closer to home may be the deciding factor for policymaking in the shale era.
By Daniel J. Graeber of Oilprice.com