The U.S. is almost drowning in oil. There's so much of it, in fact, that storage tanks are quickly filling up, and no one knows where to put it all.
Oil reserves are swelling in response to the country's fracking boom. Industry executives would love to send some of the surplus light sweet crude overseas, but their hands are tied by the country's 40-year-old oil export ban.
Now, there is a growing push from the oil industry to lift the ban. CEOs from ConocoPhillips and 10 other companies lobbied lawmakers earlier this month to roll back the restrictions. For them, real money is at stake: There's so much oil in the U.S. that it sells for about $10 a barrel less than it does in the rest of the world, Bloomberg reported.
Total U.S. crude production hit a record 9.4 million barrels a day last week, even though the price of oil has plummeted over the last year. Those low prices, by the way, have been a jackpot for U.S. fuel refiners who have no limitations on what they can export. As a result, they've been exporting record amounts of gasoline overseas, Bloomberg reports. It isn't easy for oil executives to sit back while fuel refineries make a bundle exporting gas.
The export ban was imposed 40 years ago after the 1973 Arab oil embargo. "Whatever the merits of this policy may have been then, in this new age of energy abundance, prohibiting the export of America's excess supply of crude oil no longer makes any practical or political sense," wrote George Baker, the head of a coalition of oil producers, in a recent opinion piece in The Hill.
Analysts with IHS said in a report Tuesday that lifting the export ban could create hundreds of thousands of additional U.S. jobs and add billions to the U.S. economy.
Not everyone is thrilled about lifting the ban, however. Some worry that allowing exports will raise the cost of oil domestically, making gasoline more expensive for U.S. drivers. Surplus oil storage helps insulate the U.S. economy from oil volatility abroad, wrote Tyson Slocum, director of consumer watchdog group Public Citizen's Energy Program, Tuesday in The Hill. "Oil is literally a fuel for economic activity," he added. "To increase the cost of that feedstock would benefit oil extractors at the expense of everyone else."
Fuel refiners also want to keep the ban in place. Many U.S. refineries weren't built to process the light sweet crude produced domestically. Instead, their equipment handles the heavier oil from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Canada. Some refineries have changed in order to process more U.S. oil, which sells at a discount compared to the global supply.
Don't expect Congress to roll back the ban this year, reports the FuelFix site. The White House knows that doing so could undermine relations with Saudi Arabia, which is a major U.S. ally, notes FuelFix's Jennifer Dlouhy.
"Any major upheaval in U.S. oil export policy is unlikely anytime soon, especially in an election year, when voters' concerns about spiking gasoline prices -- and lawmakers' fear of being held accountable for them at the ballot box -- are likely to hold sway on Capitol Hill," Dlouhy added.
The Obama administration hasn't publicly responded to cries to lift the export ban. It appeared to take a step in that direction last year, however, when it began allowing some producers to export ultralight forms of oil known as condensate that have only been minimally processed.
There's another kink in the system: The Jones Act, notes Holman Jenkins Jr. of The Wall Street Journal. That 1920 law says that only ships that are built, owned and operated in the U.S. can haul oil between U.S. ports.
That restriction can make it pricier for companies to ship between U.S. cities than overseas. If the export ban was lifted, it would still cost $2 a barrel to ship Texas crude to Europe or Asia and $7 to ship it to Philadelphia, Jenkins reports. "A great deal of U.S. oil would go to overseas refineries solely to take advantage of cheaper shipping rates," he added.