U.S. Oil Exports Aren’t the Reason Gas Prices Are Low, Yet

Nikola Nastasic/

Congress’ decision last month to end the 40-year-old ban on U.S. crude oil exports isn’t the reason many American drivers are paying less than $2 per gallon of gas. But it does make a good talking point for the oil and gas industry.

Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, says the influx of American crude oil on global markets is at least partly to thank for easing the strain on Americans’ gas budgets. Lifting the export ban “creates an opportunity for U.S. producers to compete with anybody in the world,” he said at API’s State of American Energy event on Tuesday. “And ultimately, as all this data shows, it benefits American consumers.”

Could a weeks-old oil export decision impact Americans’ pocketbooks already? The first shipment of crude oil left Texas on New Year’s Eve. Proponents of ending the ban billed it as a long-term policy improvement rather than a move that would immediately help consumers.

At API’s event, Gerard said the new availability of U.S. oil helped avoid a spike in gas prices that could have come from recent tensions in the Middle East. For example, Saudi Arabia recently cut diplomatic ties with Iran after the execution of a Shiite cleric spurred angry mob reactions.

But American oil isn’t yet flowing worldwide, said University of Houston finance professor Craig Pirrong. “I don’t think the ending of the export ban really has any impact on the market response to the most recent Saudi-Iran faceoff, or showdown, or whatever you want to call it,” Pirrong told Morning Consult.

Exporting oil isn’t lucrative for American companies right now because of the low oil prices, Pirrong said. So the end of the export ban couldn’t have had much of an effect.

Gerard also said the world’s new access to U.S. crude oil has helped even out oil markets. As proof, he cited a lessening differential in the two major crude oil benchmarks, London-based Brent crude oil and West Texas Intermediate oil. For several years, Brent has traded for substantially more than WTI. That gap closed very recently.

There are conflicting opinions about why there was a disparity in the first place because WTI and Brent products are almost exactly the same.  API spokesman Carlton Carroll cited an analysis by Tim Worstall, a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London, that entirely blamed the U.S. crude oil export ban. It would make sense, then, that lifting the ban would even out the differences.

Still, when it comes to the immediate economic effects of ending the ban, the Worstall article cited a blog post by Pirrong, which said there wouldn’t be a significant impact right away. “All in all, the lifting of the ban is not a big deal,” he wrote.

So why didn’t oil prices jump after tensions escalated in the Middle East?

“For the last 18 months we’ve built a buffer that the world can depend on,” said Skip York, vice president of integrated energy for research and consulting group Wood Mackenzie.

Worldwide production of oil has outpaced demand since the summer of 2014, York said, creating a surplus so that the disruption of a single source of oil won’t shake worldwide markets the way it typically would. (It’s the same reason oil prices are so drastically low right now.)

It’s hard to say what will happen in the immediate future, although York said he expects “upward pressure” on oil prices later this year.

For now, the low prices are wreaking havoc on the U.S. stock market. Oil prices have plunged to levels that were previously thought impossible. WTI and Brent crude oil were both trading for less than $34 per barrel on Thursday. In comparison, WTI has traded between $80 and $100 for the past few years, while Brent usually traded between $100 and $120 before its prices declined in 2014.

Pirrong acknowledged that Gerard’s broader point about consumer benefits of U.S. oil exports might come true in the future. Generally speaking, he said, the availability of crude oil from the U.S. could blunt spikes in global oil prices if there’s any kind of crisis.

Still, linking the United States’ new ability to export crude oil to today’s gas prices doesn’t make sense, he said. Neither does applying it to the feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

With the current glut of oil supply, the Middle East tension could be keeping prices low because neither side would be willing to limit its own production to help the other. Right now, “the incentives of the Saudis are to punish the Iranians by keeping output high,” Pirrong said.

To those who opposed ending the export ban, Gerard’s attempt to tie the move to consumers’ current financial benefits is an aggressive bit of spin. “It’s always good to drill, according to API,” said Bill Snape, legal counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, which opposed ending the ban. “They apply every modern current event to, ‘It must be a good time to drill.'”

Gerard may be guilty of shining a misleadingly positive light on the end of the export ban, but people who feel differently about the oil industry are similarly unwilling to praise the economic benefits. For example, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who opposed ending the ban, told Morning Consult he doesn’t buy the argument that the availability of American gas globally will help avoid price spikes. Ending the ban will be “economically beneficial to different gas companies, conglomerates, but it has no effect domestically,” he said.

Snape, while taking issue with Gerard’s short-term claims, acknowledges that the long-term effects could keep oil prices down. But whether that’s a good thing is a matter of perspective. The current “artificially low” prices, Snape said, “are at odds with putting a price on carbon” to reduce emissions.

Morning Consult