Market Insider

Supertankers could change U.S. oil export game

Key Points
  • Shell Oil is reportedly loading a supertanker in Louisiana, the first of its kind to leave that port with U.S. crude exports.
  • The shipment via the Saudi Arabian-owned supertanker, capable of carrying 2 million barrels, signals the next phase in the U.S. transition to becoming a major energy exporter.
  • The U.S. is expected to become a net energy exporter by 2022.
Tim Rue | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The first oil supertanker, capable of carrying 2 million barrels of crude, was being loaded in Louisiana this week, signalling the next phase in the U.S. transition to becoming a major energy exporter.

The tanker, 'Shaden,' was chartered by Shell Oil and is Saudi Arabian-flagged, according to a report by S&P Global Platts. The ship was due to leave the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port with a cargo of medium sour crude, sources told Platts. Shell declined to comment on the report.

"There's a lot of different infrastructure projects that have been underway all over the Gulf Coast to facilitate the rise in U.S. production. We see that activity taking advantage of the rising interest globally in U.S. exports of all types, and the rising demand environment as well," said Michael Cohen, Barclays head of energy commodities research.

U.S. oil exports have been growing since Congress reversed a 40-year-old law prohibiting most exports just over two years ago. As oil prices improved, U.S. oil production has also boomed, recently topping 10 million barrels a day, the highest since 1970.

The U.S. exported an average 1.4 million barrels a day of crude over the last four weeks, up from an average 605,000 barrels a day a year ago, according to government data.

"It's a big deal for the industry because it develops additional logistics for our increasing oil production," said Andrew Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates. Lipow said the ship looks set to sail on Feb. 18. "There's an ever increasing amount of logistics that are being used to export crude off the Gulf Coast to overseas markets."

Lipow said there was another supertanker, named Anne, that took on a partial Occidental Petroleum cargo last year in a test at Ingleside, near Corpus Christi, Texas. But that tanker had to complete its loading off shore. In this case, the Shaden can be entirely loaded at LOOP before sailing, he said.

LOOP officials were unavailable for comment, but the port said on its website that it "has moored a VLCC and initiated its detailed test and checkout procedure." The VLCC, or very large crude carrier, is owned by Saudi shipper Bahri and was expected to take the crude into the Shell refining system, according to Platts.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration recently said the U.S. should be a net energy exporter by 2022, moving up its forecast by four years. Recently becoming a net exporter of natural gas, the U.S. continues to import oil with 7.8 million barrels a day imported last week. Canada is the biggest source of imports. The U.S. oil industry also has a growing export business with an average 4.8 million barrels a day of gasoline and other refined products exported over the past four weeks.

Cohen said the LOOP has been working to export fuel by supertanker.

"These projects have been underway for several years and we expect more to move forward as U.S. production continues to grow and exceed the appetite for U.S. domestic refiners for that crude," he said.

Cohen said bottlenecks in the U.S. system had been a concern but as they get worked out more U.S. crude can move offshore. "Now the question is whether we may see further significant discounts between Gulf Coast grades and Brent, in the balance of this year or next year as the refining system outside the U.S. adjusts to the reality of new types of exports of different quality," he said said.

For instance, in the futures market, the price of U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude has grown closer to Brent, at about $63 per barrel Tuesday. WTI futures were at $59.21 per barrel.

"It's a lever to reduce the arbitrage opportunity. The exports act as a lever to narrow the arbitrage. As infrastructure gets built, the arbitrage may not be as large as it is right now," he said.