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The U.S. oil industry exported a record 1.3 million barrels of crude per day onto the world market last week — just a half million barrels less than the cuts OPEC and Russia agreed to make to daily production.
"I expect we're going to see new records set over the next six months as U.S. production continues to ramp up ... OPEC has become the swing producer of the world because other producers have figured out how to lower their costs and increase their efficiency and get more oil out of the ground profitably at $50 ... OPEC needs to just grit their teeth and wait for world oil demand to soak up the oversupply," said Andrew Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates.
OPEC, Russia and other producers extended their agreement just last week to curb output by 1.8 million barrels a day for another nine months, in an effort to force a rebalancing of the oil market. Crude prices have been soft since they struck the deal amid concerns the cuts are not deep enough to stem the flow of new oil from the U.S. and other sources, like Libya and Nigeria.
The U.S. government also reported that domestic oil production increased to 9.34 million barrels a day from 9.32 million the week earlier, a sign that shale producers continue to ratchet up output even with oil floundering in the high $40s per barrel.
U.S. refineries also upped their production, processing a record 17.51 million barrels of oil a day last week, topping a previous record of 17.29 million barrels set by the industry in April, according to the Energy Information Administration.
U.S. drivers used 9.82 million barrels of gasoline a day, in the week ended just before the Memorial Day weekend, up from 9.7 million barrels in the week earlier. About 1.3 million barrels a day of distillates and more than 600,000 barrels a day of gasoline were also exported from the U.S.
But analysts caution the weekly data from the EIA is tentative and could be revised when monthly data are released in several months. EIA also reported U.S. oil supplies dropped by 6.4 million barrels last week, a positive for the market and a much bigger decline than expected.
"U.S. producers are stepping up to fill the gap left by OPEC and other non-OPEC producers," said John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital. "It's going to a number of locations but increasingly Asia, where the real global battle for market share is on."
During the first quarter, the U.S. exported nearly 900,000 barrels of crude oil per day, which is more than the production that comes out of any of the four smallest OPEC producers — Qatar, Libya, Gabon or Ecuador, said Lipow.
The U.S. barrels are going around the globe. "They're going everywhere, they're going to Europe. They're going to Asia," he said.
"What we've seen is that a lot of the increase in domestic production has been accommodated by an increase in refining capacity, making the U.S. a major gasoline and diesel supplier to world markets," said Lipow. "U.S. refiners have added over 800,000 barrels a day of capacity since January 2015 and they're using it."
The EIA has monthly data on exports available through March only. The record month for exports was February, with 1.1 million barrels a day. In March, exports were 840,000 barrels a day, but in the last three months of 2016, exports averaged about 500,000 barrels per day.
Matt Smith, director of commodity research at ClipperData, which tracks oil shipments, said his firm did not see 1.3 million barrels of oil exports from the U.S. last week. He said he expects the number was more like 850,000 barrels a day. A spokesman for the EIA said the data are tentative and based on data compiled by the Customs Department and Border Patrol.
"We didn't see that high a volume. We're not sure the methodology of the EIA. We saw it a little bit lower. We saw it at 850,000. We track the Gulf Coast cargoes and some flows by pipeline as well. We're seeing it at about 850,000, all told. the EIA export number is fairly good when it's averaged out. On a week-to-week basis it is extremely volatile. It's potentially due to an extra cargo or two that bumped up that number," Smith said.
He did say there's been a big increase in export loadings to Asia. Last year, just 7 percent of U.S. export loadings headed to Asia. This year that number has ramped up to 40 percent.
The 1.3 million barrels a day reported by EIA for last week tops a record 1.2 million barrels per day exported in the week of Feb. 17. Surpassing a million barrels a day is uncommon and a milestone set just recently. Exports totaled 625,000 barrels a day in the prior week, and there was one other million-plus week in May, when 1.1 million barrels were exported in the week of May 12.
"We know anecdotally that Asian buyers have been procuring supply deals with U.S. suppliers over the last several months," said Kilduff. "There's actually been worries among Asian buyers that the OPEC deal would impact them and they've been picking up these purchases. That includes China, India and to a lesser extent South Korea."