US petroleum product exports have been in the news, along with the welcome discovery that we are apparently on track to become a net exporter of these fuels this year, for the first time since the 1940s. This is a far cry from energy independence, as various oil skeptics have been quick to point out, but it’s still a noteworthy inflection point in energy trends. However, I’ve also seen stories suggesting that US consumers will pay a lot more at the pump as a result of this change, to which the most succinct response so far is “rubbish.” Being a net exporter hasn’t suddenly connected US fuel prices to the world market, as if they had somehow been insulated from it until now. In fact, we’ve been exporting products for many years–as I know from personal experience–but for most of that time we just happened to be importing more. The net effect of our new status on prices here will be minimal, while the main impact will be a positive nudge to our trade deficit.
I am sympathetic to the present urge to see a cloud in every silver lining; we seem to be going through one of those phases in our history. At the same time we should understand that to the extent net petroleum product exports aren’t entirely good news, it’s because the main driver of this departure from a long trend of steadily increasing net imports was the sudden slowdown of consumer activity that accompanied the recession and financial crisis, from which we are still recovering. And while I agree that more efficient cars have contributed, recent fuel economy improvements have been too incremental to our fleet of 240 million light-duty vehicles (passenger cars, SUVs and light trucks) to have made such a big dent in demand, quite so soon. Mainly, we’re driving less, as the statistics on vehicle miles traveled indicate. That might be better news if it reflected a massive lifestyle change, instead of the grim reality of millions of un- and under-employed Americans for whom driving has become a luxury.
Even in that negative context, the fact that we are now exporting more gasoline and other petroleum products than we import is a plus, since without buoyant non-US demand, US refiners might have been forced to reduce operations by more than they have, or to idle more facilities and lay off staff. Today’s net exports imply a positive margin between crude oil imports and product exports sufficient to cover refiners’ costs, even after netting out freight. That results in more economic activity and value added here, driven by overseas demand, following the same export-led strategy that other industries are pursuing in order to compensate for lower US demand for their output.
More exports and fewer imports mean a smaller trade deficit, but the question on some people’s minds is apparently whether this is being accomplished at the expense of US consumers. That might have been the case if, for example, exports had been banned until recently and refiners forced to create an artificial glut of petroleum products to drive down prices. (That’s effectively the case in some other countries.) Instead, the US has long been part of a global market for both crude oil and refined products, and refiners and traders have always been alert for gaps between regional markets that could be profitably exploited. When I traded refined products for Texaco’s west coast refineries in the 1980s, we occasionally took advantage of export opportunities, even though we were more often importers. When I traded products in London, my team routinely sold cargoes of gasoline, diesel or jet fuel from the US into Europe and Asia, and we did the reverse when the “arbitrage” worked in the other direction. We accounted for just a small portion of the trade in cargoes passing back and forth between continents, which continues today.
As a result of this global market in refined petroleum products, US consumers of gasoline and other fuels have always been competing with consumers in other countries, whether we realized it or not, especially in parts of the country where refiners have easy access to export markets. That’s been true since the days when my former employer’s advertising touted its success in “lighting the (kerosene) lamps of China”. In terms of the impact on domestic prices, it doesn’t matter much whether we’re net exporters or net importers, as long as we’re connected to the global market–a linkage that has saved our bacon on many occasions when US refineries were hit by hurricanes, blackouts, or other disasters.
A more tangible way to test the consequences of product exports involves comparing past and present crude oil and gasoline prices. Making that comparison accurately is complicated by the breakdown of the main US oil market indicator, the price of West Texas Intermediate crude, which for more than a year has been burdened by excessive inventory at Cushing, OK and other factors. For now the price of Louisiana Light Sweet (LLS) is a better gauge of the oil market. LLS has been relatively unaffected by WTI’s problems and trended much closer to global oil prices, such as UK Brent crude. It turns out that 104% of the higher retail price of gasoline this November vs. a year ago is explained by the $23 per barrel increase in LLS since then. In other words, crude prices have increased by slightly more than gasoline, suggesting that raw material costs still have a much larger impact on prices at the pump than does the recent shift in US petroleum product trade patterns.
Although the evidence that product exports don’t hurt consumers is strong, I don’t expect it to dispel this handy new rationale for complaining about gas prices. After all, the price of gasoline is one of the most visible and volatile prices we’re exposed to, and for which we have few practical alternatives. Having a narrative to explain these spikes and dips is empowering, even if it’s wrong. However, in the midst of all the grumbling it’s worth spending a moment thinking about the benefits of having an oil refining industry that has been able to find alternative outlets for its products while it waits for the US economy to recover, instead of yet another manufacturing industry on the ropes, shedding jobs and moving offshore.