A tanker of oil from Texas set sail for South Korea late Wednesday night, the first unrestricted sale of unrefined American oil since the 1970s.
How that $40 million shipment avoided the nearly four-decade ban on exporting U.S. crude is a tale involving two determined energy companies, loophole-seeking lawyers, and an unprecedented boom in American drilling that could create a glut of ultralight oil.
The Singapore-flagged BW Zambesi is the first of many ships likely to carry U.S. oil abroad under a new interpretation of the federal law that bars most sales of American oil overseas. Analysts say future exports appear wide open: as much as 800,000 barrels a day come from just one of the many U.S. oil fields pumping light oil.
Though U.S. policy on oil exports hasn’t changed, production of this kind of oil, known as condensate, is surging. This early shipment “is the wedge that’s pushing the door open” for more ultralight oil exports, said Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of consulting firm IHS. IHS -1.71%
Under rules Congress imposed after the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, companies can export refined fuels like gasoline and diesel but not oil itself except in limited circumstances that require a special license. Such licenses, often for oil destined for Canada, are issued by the Bureau of Industry and Security, the unit inside the U.S. Commerce Department.
Until recently, domestic oil production had been declining and exporting oil wasn’t a hot issue. All that changed as new techniques for tapping oil from shale formations have sparked an oil boom in Texas, North Dakota and elsewhere. Since the end of 2011, U.S. oil production has jumped by about 48%, to about 8.4 million barrels a day, according federal data.
That has been good news for companies including Enterprise Products PartnersEPD -2.90% LP in Houston, a $47.7 billion company that processes, ships and stores oil and gas. Last summer, the company noticed a troubling trend: ultralight oil flowing from South Texas was flooding the market and pushing down prices. It predicted volumes would swell and prices could fall further as oil companies ramped up drilling and production.
Energy companies and lobbyists had started advocating for ending or at least relaxing the ban; Exxon Mobil Corp. XOM -4.17% , the nation’s biggest oil company, openly supported lifting export restrictions in December.
But neither Congress nor the Obama administration appeared willing to do more than study a change, which some lawmakers fear would result in higher gasoline prices in the U.S.
The industry embarked on a subtle, behind-the-scenes review of the regulations, discovering an opening for exports under existing definitions of the law. Enterprise and its lawyers found language that they believed would allow them to argue that the processing to remove some volatile elements from oil would be enough to make the resulting petroleum qualify as exportable fuel, even though it is a far cry from the traditional refining process.
The processing, which peels off fuels like propane and butane, is commonly done in oil fields across the U.S. Companies that manufacture the equipment involved say it costs between $500,000 and $5 million, a fraction of the expense of building a refinery.
When Enterprise made its case to the government, it said the equipment that its customers use to treat oil for shipment on its pipelines chemically alters the condensate in a way that makes it an exportable fuel. However, several industry executives say the equipment is not special.
“Early this year, we became very confident, extremely confident, that this was indeed a petroleum product that could be exported,” Bill Ordemann, a senior vice president at Enterprise, said in an interview.
In late February, Enterprise representatives gave a private presentation to Commerce Department officials and answered a battery of questions.
Oil executives who have met with Commerce say five to 10 department officials are involved in the talks and decisions on export rulings. When energy companies began to plead their cases with the department in earnest, an official asked one company representative how to spell condensate, said a person at the meeting.
“I look for practical solutions. I looked over the regulations, said, ‘What is my client trying to do, what windows do we have?’ ” said Jacob Dweck, a partner at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP hired by Enterprise to press its case.
Pioneer Natural Resources Co. PXD -2.49% executives also were looking for a way around the ban. Pioneer, which drills across Texas, hired a former deputy secretary of the Commerce Department to represent it.
Ted Kassinger, a partner at law firm O’Melveny & Myers, zeroed in on existing oil field equipment and asked whether it might meet federal regulatory criteria. “We suddenly realized we had existing infrastructure that, at least in part, goes through a distillation process and is producing a product that’s not crude oil,” he said.
Jeff Navin, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based policy consultants Boundary Stone Partners, said that the final decisions rested on specific language in the export ban that didn’t define a refined product but rather said oil had to pass through a “distillation tower,” traditionally found at refineries, before it could be exported.
“So the question became, ‘What constitutes a distillation tower?’ ” said Mr. Navin, a former acting chief of staff to the Energy Secretary. “The more narrowly you define that question, the easier it is to get the administration to side with you.”
Commerce gave Enterprise the green light for exports at the end of March and Pioneer received its ruling soon after. Both companies said their applications weren’t coordinated.
The decisions mean unrefined ultralight oil can now be exported from the U.S. in some cases, because the processed condensate that comes from field-level equipment is considered chemically altered enough to skirt the ban.
The White House was caught off guard by the news of the department’s actions, which weren’t coordinated with other parts of the administration, according to senior White House counselor John Podesta.
Pioneer said its ruling is narrowly drawn to fit its own operations. But Enterprise said its ruling isn’t specific to its own operations or processing equipment. Any company that processes condensate in a manner that adheres to Commerce’s ruling can sell it to Enterprise for export, the company said.
As many as 10 other companies have since applied for their own rulings on oil exports, according to people familiar with the matter. All those requests are on hold for now.
The 400,000 barrel shipment leaving the U.S. from Enterprise’s terminal in Texas City, south of Houston, was purchased by GS Caltex Corp., a South Korean refiner. Oil traders and executives say negotiations are already under way for additional sales to Asian buyers.
— Amy Harder, Eric Yep and Alison Sider contributed to this article.
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