Exporting US shale boom has changed oil markets forever
January 10 2021 09:37 PM
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A natural gas flare on an oil well pad burns as the sun sets outside Watford City, North Dakota (fil
A natural gas flare on an oil well pad burns as the sun sets outside Watford City, North Dakota (file). The US, which had been one of Opec’s biggest customers, has cut its monthly imports by about 50% since mid-2006.

By Sheela Tobben and Dave Merrill Bloomberg

Five years ago on New Year’s Eve, the Theo T left the Texas Gulf Coast with the first US shale crude shipment overseas. The oil, gathered from nearby ConocoPhillips wells and sold to trading giant Vitol Group, set sail for Italy just two weeks after lawmakers lifted a long-standing ban on exports.
It was the start of a trade that would reshape global oil markets, shift geopolitical power and upend entire economies. The shale boom itself has turned the US into the world’s largest oil producer and has moved it ever closer to a long-cherished dream of ending dependence on Middle East oil. But the export boom created an entirely new market, sending crude pulled from the shale fields of Texas, New Mexico and North Dakota to more than 50 countries, with shipments often surpassing those of any Opec nation aside from Saudi Arabia.
These past five years could very well go down as the best years that US shale oil exporters will ever see. Covid-19 has obliterated global fuel demand and bankrupted more than 40 drillers across America. Exactly how much oil leaves US shores in the coming years will largely depend on how quickly the world can recover from the pandemic and how aggressively politicians work to shift the world away from fossil fuels. But the global reach of US shale has changed oil markets for good and remains a potent, diplomatic weapon for the US.
“Opening the shale revolution to the world through the export ban lifting helped shift the global oil market psychology from supply scarcity to abundance,” said Karim Fawaz, director of research and analysis for energy at IHS Markit. “It unshackled the US industry to keep growing past its domestic refining limitations.”
Perhaps no two groups have gained from the export of America’s shale boom more than producers of US oil and the giant commodities merchants who trade it. Wildcatters including billionaire Harold Hamm of Continental Resources Inc and Scott Sheffield of Pioneer Natural Resources Co saw their revenues more than double as exports took off. “Today the US has its own petrodollars,” Hamm said in August 2018 as US oil shipments overseas boomed.
Trading giants including Trafigura Group, Vitol, Gunvor Group and Mercuria Energy Group profited from buying cheaper shale oil, shuttling it to the US coast and shipping it to eager buyers in Europe and Asia. Betting that shipments would surge, they expanded their trading desks in the US, invested in ports, pipelines and export facilities. By the last week of 2019, exports of American oil had reached nearly 4.5mn barrels a day.
US shale’s gain was Opec’s loss. As shale oil flooded the market, Opec was forced to cede market share. The US, which had been one of Opec’s biggest customers, has cut its monthly imports by about 50% since mid-2006. In the last week of December, Saudi Arabian cargoes to the US fell to zero for the first time since at least 2010.
Exports have turned US shale into a permanent thorn in Opec’s side. The oil group has had to join forces with Russia, Mexico and other major producers to ratchet back production several times in the past five years while US shale expanded its reach into key markets.
Shale now shares the fortunes — and the misfortunes — of being a major exporter. The strongest evidence of this yet came last March when US President Donald Trump joined leaders of the world’s largest oil-producing nations to hammer out an unprecedented accord to save oil markets from total collapse as the pandemic slashed demand.
The US’s shrinking dependence on foreign imports has also allowed the Trump administration to impose increasingly debilitating sanctions on two Opec founding members — Venezuela and Iran — without fear of higher fuel prices back home. And with American shale now readily available in global markets, oil price spikes tied to conflicts in the Middle East are shorter and more subdued.
“The flow of US oil since the ban’s end has kept global oil supply in balance even at times when politics have caused the loss of supply from Iran, Venezuela and Libya,” said Sandy Fielden, director of oil research at Morningstar Inc.
How long the US can maintain this clout on global oil markets remains to be seen.
One bullish sign for US oil exports: China’s appetite for crude has come back with a vengeance since the country emerged from lockdowns. That has helped draw down American oil inventories as US cargoes start hitting the water once again, reaching 3.6mn barrels a day in the week of Christmas.
There is no other country that will dictate the fate of US oil exports more than China. About two years after US lawmakers lifted the export ban, shipments to China reached 2mn barrels a day, making it by far the largest buyer of American oil. The Asian nation’s appetite for crude has rebounded since it emerged from lockdowns, but Saudi Arabia and Russia remain major suppliers to the country and competition may heat up later this year as Opec+ restores output.
“The Asian market will become more competitive as Opec+ restores some of its production,” said Shirin Lakhani, a senior oil analyst at Rapidan Energy Group. “For Opec+ producers, sales into Asia have the best profit margins due to proximity and logistics.”
Demand for US barrels will also depend on how well the global economy fares in the coming years after its deepest recession since World War II. The World Bank forecasts a 4% economic rebound this year, following a 4.3% contraction in 2020, but cautioned there’s an “exceptional level of uncertainty” as the pandemic may reduce potential global growth for a decade.  It will take until the end of 2021 for the oil glut left behind by the pandemic to clear as demand will be “lower for longer than expected” when the virus emerged in the spring, the International Energy Agency said in December.
The incoming Biden administration and its plan to completely reshape US energy policy will undoubtedly affect US oil exports. Among the president-elect’s promises on the campaign trail were stronger regulation of the hydraulic fracturing that unleashed the US shale boom, a ban on fracking federal lands and a broader transition away from fossil fuels. Depending on how it’s executed, the ban alone may not significantly affect US oil shipments. It would theoretically only apply to new drilling licences and affect a fairly limited amount of new oil output, namely in New Mexico.
But that may only prove to be a temporary boon for oil exporters. Joe Biden is among a growing chorus of world leaders pledging to wean their nations off fossil fuels for good. More than 120 countries, including China, the UK and Canada, have committed to achieving net-zero emissions over the course of the next three decades.



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