U.S. energy dominance might not translate to market influence

U.S. leaders see political leverage coming from its oil and gas assets, but analysis finds the ability to reach overseas markets could be limited by existing infrastructure.
By Daniel J. Graeber Follow @dan_graeber Contact the Author   |  May 23, 2018 at 9:13 AM
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May 23 (UPI) -- U.S. oil and natural gas abundance has a positive impact on the global energy market, but it doesn't move the market itself, a Brookings scholar testified.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been a vocal supporter of the oil and gas sector in the country. As part of his "Make America Great Again" slogan, the president said energy dominance was a vital strategy for a country on pace to become a global production leader.

In his national security strategy, the administration said the U.S. role as a global oil and gas exporter has global implications.

"As a growing supplier of energy resources, technologies, and services around the world, the United States will help our allies and partners become more resilient against those that use energy to coerce," the strategy reads.

For the week ending May 11, the federal government reported the four-week moving average for crude oil exports at 2.2 million barrels per day, more than double the amount from the same period last year. The United States is already a net exporter of natural gas and the super-cooled liquefied natural gas extends its export reach outside of North America to European countries dependent on Russia for natural resources.

There are debates, meanwhile, over whether the United States will be a swing producer, one that can maneuver its production to respond to market conditions. Saudi Arabia is seen currently as the world's major swing producer.

Testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives on the geopolitical implications of U.S. oil and gas advances, Samantha Gross, a fellow on energy policies at The Brookings Institution, said U.S. energy leverage may be limited and the term "dominance" is misleading.

"To me, 'dominance' implies an ability to move markets, whereas the U.S. energy industry, while strong and increasingly important to global energy security, is not structured to achieve that end or other geopolitical goals," she said in her prepared remarks.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted at geopolitical leverage during a visit to Poland earlier this year, saying Russian natural gas pipelines to the region undermined European energy security and gave the Kremlin a way to use energy as a "political tool."

Congressman Ted Poe, R-Texas, the chairman of a terrorism subcommittee in the House, said the United States could use its energy as a "force multiplier" for U.S. leverage.

"We now have the power to greatly minimize the influence of states like Russia, Iran, and Venezuela over the international energy market," he said.

That leverage may be limited by domestic infrastructure. A report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration found export levels are increasing even though terminals on the southern U.S. coast can't load the largest types of carriers. Those vessels, dubbed Very Large Crude Carriers, are the most economic for crude oil transportation.

Most ports on the Gulf of Mexico can only accommodate vessels with a capacity of 500,000 barrels. Larger classes can carry twice that amount. As the United States is only in the early years of exporting crude oil, its port infrastructure wasn't designed to accommodate those bigger vessels.

Inland, meanwhile, the International Energy Agency said there's not enough capacity to take oil away from some of the southern shale basins like Eagle Ford and Permian.

Nevertheless, Poe said in his remarks that, because of advances in the shale oil and gas industry, the United States was indeed "an energy superpower."

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