ConocoPhillips mulls Alaska oil exports to Asia

Breaking Media
Conway Irwin, for Breaking Energy
Polar is the marine shipping unit of ConocoPhillips. 500,000 barrel storage tanks are seen in the distance.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

ConocoPhillips, the largest oil and gas producer in the state of Alaska, is mulling exports of Alaska North Slope crude to Asian markets, where the company may find better returns than on the U.S. West Coast.

"We do have the flexibility, if we want to use it, to take ANS cargoes to Asia," said chief executive Matt Fox during the company's third-quarter 2013 earnings call yesterday. "That will depend on the differential that we're seeing between Asian prices and West Coast prices," Fox said.

Exports of domestic U.S. crude are severely restricted, but there are some exceptions, such as exports to Canada, and exports of Alaskan and Californian grades.

(Read more: Why crude oil deserves to drop to $90: Pro)

"Crude oil exports are restricted to: (1) crude oil derived from fields under the State waters of Alaska's Cook Inlet; (2) Alaskan North Slope crude oil; (3) certain domestically produced crude oil destined for Canada; (4) shipments to U.S. territories; and (5) California crude oil to Pacific Rim countries." – EIA

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ANS crude exports were off limits until 1996, when restrictions were lifted to help boost demand for the state's oil. Arguments made at the time were similar to those made about the US oil industry in the lower 48 today—that expanding marketing outlets would lift demand, resulting in stronger production growth and the addition of jobs.

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According to the EIA, Alaska produced just over 3.5 billion barrels of crude between 1996 and 2004 and exported about 95.5 million barrels. As of April 2013, there had been no ANS exports since 2004. But an Alaska Dispatch report from August of this year suggests some ANS cargoes were being edged out of the West Coast market by North Dakota grades.

This may be just the beginning of a trend. "Supplies of crude from North Dakota and Western Canada have barely begun to flow to West Coast refineries although there are plenty of plans underway to increase those volumes," writes Sandy Fielden at RBN Energy.

—By Conway Irwin, Breaking Energy