Could Crude Exports Drop Gas Prices?

"'70s-era policy a remnant from another time," says Pulitzer Prize winner Yergin

Daniel Yergin IHS Quest (CSP Daily News / Convenience Stores / Gas Stations)

Daniel Yergin

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A new study claims that lifting the ban on crude-oil exports would trim gasoline prices an annual average of 8 cents per gallon (cpg).

The study, conducted by Englewood, Colo.-based IHS, follows research conducted on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute (API) that found a potential annual decline of up to 3.8 cpg in 2017, for a savings of $5.8 billion per year on average between 2015 and 2035.

The United States has banned most exports of crude oil since 1975 as part of the Energy Policy & Conservation Act to reduce reliance on foreign imports. But with the country now ranking among the top producers globally, and relying increasingly less on imports, the oil industry and some legislators have been pushing the Obama administration to finally lift the ban.

According to the IHS study, U.S. Crude Oil Export Decision: Assessing the Impact of the Export Ban & Free Trade on the U.S. Economy, freeing up U.S. oil to global markets would have several benefits, including:

  • Alleviate supply and refining gridlock. The U.S. refining infrastructure is mostly designed to handle heavy, sour crude, and it cannot efficiently handle the increasing production of light tight oil (LTO), the IHS study said. This has created a growing discount for LTO because of the extra costs required to refine it, which could hit production investment and the economy.
  • Attract an additional $746 billion in investments between 2016 and 2035. This would trickle down to an additional $391 in average disposable income per household as the benefits of more jobs and lower gasoline prices are passed along, the study contended.
  • Spur a 1.2 million-barrels per day (bpd) increase per year in oil production from the current 8.2 million bpd. Production has already grown 64% between 2008 and 2014. This has helped cut net U.S. dependence on imports from 60% to 30% of demand between 2005 and 2014.

All of this additional crude would ultimately lower gasoline prices an annual average of 8 cpg, according to IHS, for a combined savings of $265 billion versus if the ban remained in place.

"Gasoline connects U.S. gasoline prices to the global market--and not to the price of domestically produced U.S. crude oil," the study said. "This creates a market distortion that disadvantages crude production in the United States relative to global production. Permitting U.S. exports of crude oil would put additional supply onto the world market, lowering international crude prices and international gasoline prices."

And the production increase could support an average of 394,000 additional U.S. jobs per year, with highs of 811,000 additional jobs supported in 2017 and a peak of 964,000 jobs in 2018, the study contends. Several energy companies supported the IHS research, including Chevron USA, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Chesapeake Energy.

"The 1970's-era policy restricting crude oil exports--a vestige from a price controls system that ended in 1981--is a remnant from another time," said Daniel Yergin, IHS vice chairman. "It does not reflect the dramatic turnaround in domestic oil production, led by tight oil, which has reversed the United States' oil position so significantly. The United States has cut its dependence on foreign oil in half since 2005 and its production gains have exceeded that of the rest of the world in recent years. The economic contributions of this turnaround have been substantial. Allowing the free trade of oil would expand those gains for consumers and the wider economy."

The study also pushes back against arguments that lifting the export ban would increase gasoline prices, noting that international crude and gasoline market prices have a much bigger impact on U.S. gasoline prices than domestic production. It argues that the current export ban is actually making gasoline prices higher than they otherwise would be because it is preventing additional crude oil from the United States to hit the global market.

"If crude-oil export restrictions were lifted, the resulting increase in oil production would increase supply and actually lower gasoline prices," said Kurt Barrow, study co-author and IHS vice president of downstream energy. "The gasoline trade and price fundamentals are clear."

To download a copy of the report, click here.

Yergin's latest book, The Quest: Energy, Security & the Remaking of the Modern World, is the followup to The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil Money & Power, which received the Pulitzer Prize and became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller.