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Room to Grow: US Boasts Ample Crude Export Capacity

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Current port infrastructure in the US is more than capable of accommodating existing crude exports, and there is ample room before incremental flows could run into bottlenecks.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the US has exported some 3.5 million barrels per day of crude year to date. In weekly data, that figure has gone as high as 5.1 million b/d.

Yet no signs of serious, structural logistical bottlenecks have emerged at terminals and ports. That’s because ports can accommodate substantially more barrels.

“If you look at all the loading points … 5.5 million-6 million b/d is a fair estimate of capacity. That’s not to say they can keep it up forever, but on a weekly basis,” said Matt Smith, lead oil analyst Americas at tanker tracking and logistics monitoring firm Kpler.

Recently, the Biden administration gave midstream giant Enterprise Products Partners a green light to apply for a permit to build the Sea Port Oil Terminal (SPOT) offshore Freeport, Texas, which will be capable of exporting some 2 million b/d of crude. Assuming regulatory permissions are granted, the terminal would be on line by mid-decade.

That would bring outright US crude export capacity to some 8 million b/d — more than double current flows.

US crude output is expected to peak at 13.8 million b/d in 2027, according to Energy Intelligence, up roughly 2 million b/d from 2022. The bulk of that growth is likely to be exported, although Exxon Mobil’s Beaumont, Texas refinery expansion will process an incremental 250,000 b/d of domestic light, sweet crude starting next year.

“We’re unlikely to see ports being a bottleneck,” said Abhiram Rajendran, director of oil markets research at Energy Intelligence. “Modest supply growth in the US will be easily absorbed.”

Escalating Exports

US crude exports have grown dramatically since the end of 2015, when the country lifted restrictions on shipping oil abroad.

Several factors have helped boost US exports: incremental domestic supply; a mismatch between the quality of shale oil and domestic downstream configurations; and more recently, the rationalization of some 1 million b/d in domestic refining capacity.

The bulk of the crude exports from the US have typically gone to the Asia-Pacific region, but in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 and the resulting embargoes, Europe has stepped up purchases.

EIA data show that since the beginning of March 2022, Europe has imported some 1.5 million b/d of US crude, nearly double the average seen in March 2019, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A wide spread between global oil price benchmark Brent and US grades has also helped incentivize exports.

Going forward, Smith said, the upper range of typical flows is likely to be around 4 million b/d.

“You’ve got a situation now where Europe has increased imports of US crude, but there’s limited upside to that now given they need sour barrels. Asia’s got West African crude it can pull in, Mideast crude too,” he explained.

Rajendran added that releases from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) have helped bolster exports this year.

“Once SPR releases have slowed down or stopped, exports should cool off," he said.

Reversed Routes

The construction of export terminals were part of a complete overhaul of the US logistics system in recent years, and came relatively late in the process.

The shale revolution of the last decade prompted a massive reorientation in the US midstream, with several major pipelines reversing as the country transformed from an importer to self-sufficient when it came to light, sweet oil, and then became a major exporter of its booming output.

A slew of newbuild pipelines running directly from the Permian Basin and Eagle Ford Shale plays to ports along the US Gulf Coast went into service through the end of 2019 as well, helping to connect producers directly to overseas markets.

As exports swelled, projects aimed at streamlining and boosting shipments proliferated. Corpus Christi, Texas saw dredging and the construction of export infrastructure that allowed for significant loading of very large crude carriers (VLCCs). The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) also reversed a buoy late last decade to allow for crude exports on VLCCs.

Crude is shipped abroad from Houston, Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas as well.

Topics:
Crude Oil, Oil Trade, Oil Supply, Oil Demand, Oil Pipelines, Oil Tankers
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