The hydraulic fracturing boom in the United States hit a major milestone last month. For the first time in nearly two decades, U.S. crude oil production exceeded imports.
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), daily oil production in October hit 7.7 million barrels, while we only imported 7.6 million barrels per day.
That’s truly an impressive feat — one that’s expected to get even better over the long term.
With shale formations like the Bakken and Eagle Ford continuing to churn out major increases in production, analysts estimate that the U.S. will be producing a record 8.88 million barrels per day by the end of 2014. Meanwhile, imports should fall to just 5.8 million.
And eventually, that import number could fall to zero — and that could happen sooner than many early predictions would indicate.
That all means one thing: exporting our crude oil bounty could be on our horizon. For investors, that opportunity could be huge.
Shipping The Oil Boom
Stemming from the 1970s Arab Oil Embargo, producers are generally banned from exporting significant amounts of crude. Current federal laws prohibits the export of U.S. crude to countries that have free trade pacts with the U.S. Mostly, U.S. oil exports have been about 67,000 barrels or so sent to Canadian refineries.
That could all be changing, as the shale oil boom has shifted the dynamics of the U.S. energy market.
With producers now churning out record amounts of West Texas Intermediate (WTI), they are clamoring to get their product out into the international marketplace. That’s because WTI is still trading at a significant price difference to global standard Brent. While infrastructure bottlenecks have reduced that difference over the last few years, analysts still estimate that we are pumping out way too much crude.
Storage facilities continue to fill up and we may soon exceed the amount of light sweet crude that our refineries can handle. The majority — which were built in the 1970s and 80s — are designed to handle the sour and heavier varieties that come from overseas sources. Without raising the amount of crude we export, WTI should trade in the $70-$75 a barrel range by 2018.
Smaller producers — such as Bakken kingpin Continental Resources (CLR) — estimate that those prices per barrel will ultimately stifle production, cost jobs and puts U.S.-focused firms at a disadvantage to their larger international rivals. Those larger firms have the ability to export refined petroleum products such as gasoline and heating oil.
For producers and several analysts, exporting our WTI crude while still importing Brent makes sense given our refinery situation and the pending overcapacity of light sweet crude in North America. So much sense that the American Petroleum Institute (API) trade group has begun lobbying and pitching Congress over the “potential violations of the World Trade Organization rules against export restrictions.”
This should sound familiar. This debate played out last year with regards to our surge in natural gas production.
As we’ve seen, fracking has unearthed an ocean of natural gas from our geology. That sent prices for fuel downwards towards historic lows. Since that time, the U.S. Energy Department has approved four applications — including bids from Cheniere Energy (LNG) and Dominion Resources (D) — to begin building liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals.
International prices for natural gas are considerably higher than here in the U.S. By exporting our excess bounty, producers should be able to realize gains from those higher prices and keep the shale party going.
All in all, given the upcoming glut of light sweet crude and overcapacity in the system, oil exports could be coming to a town near you.
Playing The Monumental Shift
While some analysts predict that the U.S. won’t begin exporting crude until around 2020, the shift towards shipping our bounty could come earlier than expected — especially considering that many prolific shale regions have already trounced production estimates. That means the time to get in on oil U.S. exports could be at hand.
At first blush, focusing on the crude oil shippers like Frontline (FRO) comes to mind. However, with so much excess capacity still in the system, many of the oil tankers may not even survive long enough to boom in U.S. oil exports. FRO actually warned investors that it is likely to default on $225 million worth of convertible bonds due in 2015 in the current environment.
So the shippers are out for now. That means the biggest winners of all of this are going to be the mid-sized producers in the Bakken and Eagle Ford, as they will now be able to realize higher prices for their production. E&P stocks such as Continental, Pioneer Natural Resources (PXD) and EOG (EOG) are all buys based on this premise.
Of course, perhaps the best way to play them all continues to be the iShares US Energy ETF (IYE). The fund tracks 82 different U.S. producers, with a heavy dose of mid-sized firms that are playing our nation’s shale oil potential … not to mention plenty of natural gas exporting potential as well.
So far, IYE has been a huge winner as the shale revolution has taken hold. But the fund could surge even more so as WTI priced crude finally gets some respect on the international stage.
For only 0.45% in expenses, or $45 per $10,000 invested, IYE is a pretty cheap option to play the pending exports.
As of this writing, Aaron Levitt did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.