Friday, December 6, 2013

American Media Finally Starting to Notice the Problems Caused by US Export Restrictions on Oil & Gas

Decades-old US laws currently prevent the free exportation of American crude oil and natural gas, thus raising a host of economic, legal and policy problems.  This is not a good thing, but it fortunately appears that the stalwart American media are starting to notice.  Unfortunately, it took them a heckuva long time to do it, as two recent news stories make clear.

First, several media outlets picked up a new National Association of Manufacturers analysis which finds that US natural gas export restrictions likely violate WTO rules.  This Reuters clip is pretty indicative of the media coverage:
A lobbying group pressing the U.S. government to speed approval of U.S. natural gas and coal export proposals released a report on Tuesday contending that long delays in the approval process may violate global trade rules.  
The National Association of Manufacturers commissioned James Bacchus, a former Democratic Congressman and World Trade Organization judge, to pen the report, which it says sends a message to the Obama administration and Congress that they should accelerate the approval process and lift regulatory barriers…  
The NAM asked Bacchus to consider whether delays by the Department of Energy in issuing licenses to export liquefied natural gas to certain countries violate obligations under World Trade Organization rules.  
In the report Bacchus concluded that both actions violate the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which forbids export restrictions. "The United States has always been a strong advocate of rules that forbid export restrictions and has been forceful in challenging export restrictions imposed by other countries," said Bacchus, warning that "the tables may be turned on the United States directly in the WTO."
NAM and Bacchus are right to raise this issue (and on the legal merits), and it’s good to see the media report the problem.  However, it’s surprising that this new analysis is treated as some sort of revelation, given that a certain Cato Institute scholar first warned of the WTO and other policy problems surrounding the natural gas export system (and a similar one for crude oil) almost ten months ago:
Beyond the economic problems, both export licensing systems raise serious concerns under global trade rules. First, the U.S. export licensing regimes for natural gas and crude oil likely violate U.S. obligations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Under GATT Article XI:1, WTO Members are generally prohibited from imposing quantitative restrictions on imports and exports. Under Article XI and related WTO jurisprudence, “discretionary” licensing systems (i.e., those in which the administering authority has the freedom to grant or deny a license) and systems in which applications are delayed for several months constitute impermissible restrictions on export quantities. On the other hand, licensing systems in which approval is automatic and relatively quick (e.g., five days) have been found to be lawful.

Based on these standards, both the U.S. natural gas and crude oil licensing systems appear to violate GATT Article XI:1. Each system provides the administering agency (DOE or BIS) with the discretion to grant or deny an export license based on subjective and nonbinding criteria (the “public interest” or “national interest” standards). Moreover, the pending export license applications have been delayed for several months (and, in a few cases, years). Both of these facts support findings of GATT violations.
Another think tank expert came to similar conclusions around the same time.  Thus, these legal concerns have been pretty common knowledge now for quite a while (and originally weren’t pushed by a “lobbying group”).  It’s really odd that they’re today being treated as novel.

Second, the Wall Street Journal reported this week that startling increases in US crude oil production, combined with onerous export restrictions, have led to a glut of domestic oil, a host of potential problems for domestic oil producers and newfound focus on the 1970s era export law:
The U.S. Gulf Coast—home to the world's largest concentration of petroleum refineries—is suddenly awash in crude oil.  So much high-quality U.S. oil is flowing into the area that the price of crude there has dropped sharply in the past few weeks and is no longer in sync with global prices.  In fact, some experts believe a U.S. oil glut is coming. "We are moving toward a significant amount of domestic oversupply of light crude," says Ed Morse, head of commodities research at Citigroup….  
And the glut on the Gulf Coast is likely to grow. In January, the southern leg of TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone pipeline is set to begin transporting 700,000 barrels a day of crude from the storage tanks of Cushing, Okla., to Port Arthur, Texas.
The ramifications could be far-reaching, including lower gasoline prices for American drivers, rising profits for refineries and growing political pressure on Congress to allow oil exports. But the glut could also hurt the very companies that helped create it: independent drillers, who have reversed years of declining U.S. energy production but face lower prices for their product….  
"Not one person saw this coming," says Paul Sankey, an energy analyst at Deutsche Bank. He says he expects growing production to eventually push prices of West Texas Intermediate crude, the U.S. benchmark, below $80 a barrel, down from $97.38 Thursday. The industry "will start screaming" for Congress to lift the export moratorium, he says.  
Adam Bedard, a market analyst for High Sierra Energy, a subsidiary of NGL Energy Partners, agrees that pressure will rise on the federal government to loosen crude-oil export restrictions, which date back to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. Oil storage in the Gulf region appears to be filling up, he says. "It's like someone built a superhighway where there wasn't one before."
Again, the WSJ should be commended for highlighting this important story and the serious economic and legal problems caused by US export restrictions on crude oil.  However, it’s laughable to say that “not one person saw this coming.”  Indeed, that very same Cato scholar warned of this problem back in February:
[B]y depressing domestic prices and subjecting export approval to the whims of government bureaucrats, the U.S. licensing systems retard domestic energy production, discourage investment in the oil and gas sectors, and destabilize the domestic energy market. Artificially low prices prevent producers from achieving a sustainable rate of return on the massive up-front costs required to drill and extract oil and gas, and investors lack any assurances under the discretionary licensing systems that domestic prices will not collapse when output increases.  Such concerns have led the IEA to recently warn that U.S. export restrictions put the “American oil boom” at risk. 
This modern day Nostradamus then drilled down (pun intended!) on the problem for Reuters in June:
[A] bipartisan swath of federal and state officials is pressing for new infrastructure, like the Keystone XL pipeline, to move a glut of domestic oil from the center of North America to Gulf ports. This is a crucial step, but unless Congress reforms archaic restrictions on crude oil exports, all that black gold’s going nowhere….  
[B]y curtailing exports and subjecting license approvals to the whims of bureaucrats, the current system slows domestic production, breeds economic distortions, discourages investment and destabilizes energy markets.  
U.S. oil producers, for example, lose an estimated $10 billion a year due to their inability to sell crude in foreign markets. They’ve also spent hundreds of millions of dollars building “mini-refineries” in the Midwest and Gulf region to circumvent the current restrictions and export a slightly processed, cheaper product — leaving another $1.7 billion in potential profit on the table.  
As Rube-Goldbergian as this sounds, producers have few alternatives, given that U.S. oil consumption has collapsed in recent years and building new refinery capacity is virtually impossible in many “environmentally friendly” states. These problems prompted the head of the International Energy Agency to warn recently that U.S. export restrictions put the “American oil boom” at risk….
Given these problems, it’s clear that the current crude oil export licensing system needs to go. Congressional supporters of the U.S. energy boom must lead the charge.
If advocates really want to develop our vast energy resources and expand the economy, they should craft a licensing policy that reflects the new energy landscape and the immense U.S. export potential.  They’d also be restoring some overall coherence to U.S. trade and energy policy — and avoiding potentially embarrassing trade conflicts. If they ignore these restrictions, and their many flaws, the nascent U.S. oil boom could be snuffed out.
Sounds familiar, eh?  If only there were some sort of “search engine” or something that would allow curious journalists to find such things on the internet.  Alas, maybe next year.

Sour grapes aside, these news items raise two far-more-important points.  First, it’s good to see that the media are finally, after only a year, catching on to the many unnecessary problems created by US oil and gas export restrictions.  Hopefully, they’ll keep at it (even if they continue to ignore me). 
Second, and maybe more obviously, these export restrictions – dating back, in the case of gas, to the 1930s! – are causing serious, serious problems for the United States: distorting energy markets, eliminating jobs, depressing economic growth, creating global trade frictions and undermining other, worthwhile US government policies.  They reflect a bygone era of US energy homogeneity and scarcity.

Isn’t it time that our laws – and our political leaders – caught up?

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