The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Fear Mongering on Exports

Kyle Isakower

Kyle Isakower
Posted February 22, 2012

Kevin Hall, of McClatchy, writes:

“U.S. demand for oil and refined products - including gasoline - is down sharply from last year, so much that United States has actually become a net exporter of gasoline, unable to consume all that it makes.”

So far so good.

“Exports of U.S. refined product averaged 2.928 million barrels per day over the four weeks ending on Feb. 10, compared to 2.190 million barrels per day for the four weeks ending Feb. 11, 2011, the EIA said. This category is primarily gasoline, but it includes unfinished oils, fuel additives, ethanol and other blending components.”

Um.  No.  This category is not primarily gasoline.  Using the EIA data this is what we see:

Then we get the export fear mongering:

“The export picture suggests that when domestic demand rises, American motorists might be competing with drivers elsewhere for U.S.-made gasoline, which fetches a higher price as an export.”

Hall covers himself with the wiggle words, “suggests” and “might be” but this statement is still incredibly irresponsible given “the export picture” suggests no such thing. And we don’t even have to look elsewhere for proof, as this is made clear in the article! In his lead paragraph Hall makes clear that we are making more refined product than we are consuming and that exports are simply picking up the slack between domestic production and domestic demand.  Hence exports are up, and this is a very good thing:

  • Flexibility to export product in times of market imbalance helps refiners operate efficiently and maintains U.S. refining capacity. This contributes to U.S. energy security.  Not to mention keeping workers working.
  • Refining enhances the U.S. economy by adding economic value to the raw material: In the case of exported petroleum products, the U.S. produces or buys crude oil, refines it at U.S. refineries and then resells finished petroleum products at significantly higher value.  This increase in value is what GDP measures.
  • In 2011, fuel and other petroleum products were a significant part of U.S. exports (7 percent) as measured in dollars, at $107 billion. This was due in part to reduced domestic fuel demand (because of the lagging economy, increased use of renewables in finished petroleum products and more fuel-efficient cars) and in part because the industry produced at or near record amounts of gasoline and diesel in 2011.

Then article keeps the fear coming:

"To the extent that there is this export market that wasn't there before, it is certainly ... keeping prices higher than they otherwise would be," said [energy analyst John] Kilduff. "Exports were not material. Now they are becoming material."

Actually, the export market has always been there, providing refiners with a market when U.S. demand for various products is low.  But it isn’t keeping prices higher.  The EIA notes that in January 2012  refining costs AND profits made up 6 percent of the cost of a gallon of gas.

So refiners are getting only 20 cents a gallon of gross margin, of which, on average, 15 cents covers costs leaving a 5 cent per gallon profit. And yet we are to believe that taking away 8 percent of their market* would lower prices?

For too long the energy debate has been dominated by this sort of liberty with the facts.  And while it may sell newspapers it sells the American people short, and it isn’t going to lead to policies that get us where we need to go.

*Exports represent just 8 percent of the motor gasoline and ULSD produced in the U.S.


Kyle Isakower is vice president of regulatory and economic policy at the American Petroleum Institute. With 26 years experience, he is the go-to guy for issues regarding energy and environmental policy and oversees the development of API standards and economic analyses. In his past lives, Kyle has worked on issues related to waste management and remediation, NAAQS and air toxics—and led efforts promote the industry's energy efficiency efforts. Transplanted to Washington from north Jersey over 20 years ago, he remains faithful to the New York Giants, and works diligently to ensure his wife and two children do so as well.