US oil export ban could end, but does demand exist?

The U.S., a net importer of energy, is in the middle of a debate over whether to lift a 40-year ban on crude exports. One nagging question, however, remains unanswered.

Where exactly will all that oil go?

Oil tanker at the Port of Long Beach, Calif.
Getty Images

The world's largest economy is standing on the threshold of energy independence at a time when demand for crude is expected to be modest. Even if the U.S. lifts its self-imposed export embargo—something nobody expects to happen immediately—uncertain worldwide growth raises questions about which region would be best positioned to absorb those exports.

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"Europe and Asia would certainly be the prime targets for U.S. oil exports," Thomas Pugh of Capital Economics said in an e-mail. "However, remember that higher U.S. oil production is displacing imports."

The oil that used to be imported to the U.S. is now redirected to the very regions that would be markets for U.S. oil, he said. Because of this, "the impact on global prices of U.S. oil exports probably wouldn't be that large."

Is the era of 'easy oil' over?

Simultaneously, major economic powerhouses are struggling. A possible slowdown in China has spooked markets, while the 12-nation euro zone is suffering from flattening prices and soft demand. In its March monthly outlook, the International Energy Agency sees global demand rising by a mere 1.5 percent this year, adding that China and emerging markets—traditionally two of the largest sources of demand growth—are slowing.

Additionally, ongoing tension between Russia and the West over Ukraine "has increased downside risk to the forecast" for global consumption, the IEA said.

Oddly enough, the best destination for U.S. oil may be its own energy-hungry market. The IEA added that U.S. demand "continues to show signs of strengthening" even as external consumption is flat to only marginally higher.

Signs abound that the bounty reaped by producers working shale deposits has yet to alleviate domestic price pressures. Retail pump prices remain stubbornly lodged above $3 per gallon, and the brutally cold winter sent other fuel prices surging.

But even the domestic market for U.S. crude faces obstacles. The country's refining infrastructure is designed to process heavier international crude rather than the lighter variety pulled from shale.

"There's certainly demand in the U.S. market. The question is refining capabilities," said Gary Clark, commodities strategist at Roubini Global Economics in London.

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Clark said lifting the ban would "remove a distortion" that keeps West Texas Intermediate crude, the domestic standard, trading at a discount to Brent, the international standard. But he added that upgrading domestic refineries to handle lighter shale oil was a major piece of the equation.

The U.S. "needs more infrastructure to move shale oil to where it's needed, and ... upgrade refineries that can accept that crude," Clarke said. That can help tame retail gas, and decrease the possibility of rising prices from crude exports, he said.

"It's likely going to happen, but it'll take time to realize it," he added.

—By CNBC's Javier David.