U.S. shale drillers will soon be able to sell their oil all over the world. Too bad no one needs it right now.
A congressional deal to lift the 1970s-era prohibition on shipping crude overseas has the potential to unleash a flood of oil from Texas and North Dakota shale fields into markets already flush with cheap supplies from the Persian Gulf, Russia and Africa.
The arrival of U.S. barrels in trading hubs from Rotterdam to Singapore will intensify competition for market share between oil-rich nations, publicly traded producers and trading houses, adding pressure to prices that have tumbled 67 percent in the past 18 months. In the longer term, it may also extend a lifeline to shale drillers strapped for cash after amassing huge debt loads during the boom years.
U.S. oil explorers from Exxon Mobil Corp. to Continental Resources Inc. have been agitating for an end to the export ban for most of this decade as technological advances in drilling and fracking opened up vast, untapped reserves of crude. The so-called shale revolution has lifted U.S. oil output for seven straight years, making the nation the world’s third-biggest producer behind Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Outside of shipments to Canada, oil pumped from U.S. fields stayed in the country, helping boost supply to the highest for this time of year since 1930. As the glut swelled, U.S. crude sank to more than $27 a barrel below overseas prices. Now the glut has spread across the world, and West Texas Intermediate oil is less than $1 below international benchmark Brent.
“We have to have an outlet for our crude,” ConocoPhillips Chief Executive Officer Ryan Lance said during an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. U.S. oil has fetched a lower price than international crude because it’s been “trapped” by the export ban, he said.
Oil producers, rig owners, drill-bit manufacturers and oilfield service providers around the world have been canceling exploration projects, reducing budgets and firing hundreds of thousands of workers to cope with the worst price slump in a generation.