oil prices

If you follow energy closely, you've likely lost count of the number of times you've heard an economist, executive or government official explain that oil prices are set by the global market, and not by oil companies or the US government.  Although somewhat over-simplified, this statement has been valid for roughly 30 years.  However, it hasn't always been the case. Current trends in US production, together with existing regulations, make me wonder if it will remain accurate in the future, as the US inches closer to what is commonly referred to as energy independence. 

The market-based system of oil prices, with its transparency and easy trading among regions, didn't appear overnight.  Until the early 1970s, Texas played a role similar to Saudi Arabia's current swing producer role within OPEC.  By limiting the output of the state's oil wells, the Texas Railroad Commission effectively determined the global price of oil--to the extent there was one--until Texas had no spare capacity left.  That set the stage for OPEC, a succession of oil crises, and the US oil price controls that were imposed in the 1970s in an attempt to help manage inflation. There was also no single, representative oil price.  Instead, prices were set by producers' contract terms and the discounts large refiners could negotiate, or by federal regulations.  The current system emerged from a series of developments in the 1980s.

When US oil price controls ended in 1981, oil futures trading was just getting underway on the New York Mercantile Exchange.  The heating oil contract was launched in 1980, followed by the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil contract in 1983. This combined large-scale oil trading with an unprecedented level of transparency.   It was also significant that the US, the world's biggest oil consumer, had become a major oil importer after domestic production peaked in 1970.  Because refineries on the coasts competed for oil supplies with refiners on other continents, the price of WTI couldn't get too far out of line with imported crudes without creating arbitrage opportunities for traders.  And any part of the US connected by pipeline to the Gulf Coast was effectively linked to oil prices in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

After OPEC miscalculated the response to the very high prices its members were demanding in that period--reaching $100 per barrel in today's dollars--global oil demand shrank by nearly 10% from 1979 to 1983, while non-OPEC production grew by more than 12%.  Prices soon collapsed, and OPEC's dominance of oil markets faded for most of the next two decades, during which the futures exchanges and trading relationships of the modern oil market took hold. 

What could shake the current system of oil prices?  It has already withstood recessions, wars in the Middle East, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the explosive growth of Asia, with China alone adding oil demand comparable to that of the EU's five largest economies.  However, since the current system is based on the free flow of oil between regions, anything that impedes that flow could undermine the way oil is currently priced.

Setting aside conflict scenarios, consider the potential impact of sustained growth in US production, combined with flat or declining demand and no change in the current prohibition on most US crude oil exports.  The gyrating differential between WTI and UK Brent crude, reflecting rising production in the mid-continent and serious logistical bottlenecks, provides a glimpse of what this could be like.  With much of the new US production coming in the form of oils lighter than those for which most Gulf Coast refineries have been optimized, keeping rising US crude output bottled up here could result in US crude prices diverging even farther  from global prices, while forcing US refineries to operate less efficiently and import and export more refined products.  With oil imports drastically reduced and oil exports still banned, US oil prices might be influenced more by the global market for refined products, with its different dynamics and players, than by the global crude oil market .

In some respects, that sounds a lot like what many politicians and "energy hawks" have been seeking for years: a US no longer subject to foreign oil producers' price demands.  Yet this same scenario could yield all sorts of unintended consequences, including a less competitive US refining industry and higher or at least more volatile prices for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.  And just as we've seen with cheap natural gas, cheaper oil could undermine the economics of the unconventional oil and gas production that makes it possible in the first place. 

US oil export policy merits a thorough reevaluation, and soon, because the regional impacts of a continued no-export stance could become pronounced, even if the US never reached overall oil self-sufficiency. Such a review should include related regulations, such as the Jones Act restrictions on shipping. With crude oil exports to Canada -- virtually the only allowed export destination for our newly abundant crude types--already rising rapidly, some Canadian refineries may be positioned to supply US east coast fuel markets more cheaply than refineries in New Jersey.  That certainly qualifies as an unintended consequence.

A slightly different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.