The good news is the Great American Shale Energy Boom continues to hurtle onward.
The bad news is we may be running out of ways of getting it to consumers.
In its latest report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says that the U.S. is producing so much oil — November output surpassed 8 million barrels for the first time in 25 years — that at some point in the near future, existing ways of taking it to market could become inadequate.
They call it the “crude wall” — the point at which oil production growth would end up getting squeezed by infrastructure and regulatory constraints, and subsequently slow.
“With 2013 US crude oil production exceeding even the boldest of expectations by a wide margin, that ‘wall’ now seems to be looming larger than ever, and the issue has become a matter of public debate,” the agency says.
Specifically, debate has begun on lifting the ban on raw crude exports that’s been in place for nearly 40 years, when the first Oil Shock hit. While no legislation to do so has yet been introduced, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, at least one Senator, and multiple oil companies have called for the ban to be reexamined.
So ending the ban would require the most heavy lifting.
But the IEA notes there are other items Washington could to address the issue. There’s the the Jones Act, an ancient regulation which says that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports must be carried on American made-and-flagged vessels. As Reuters’ John Kemp notes, from 2000 to 2013, Jones Act-eligible tankers declined to 43 from 110, hindering the ability of oil companies to move their product to consumers. “It is questionable whether the Jones Act really contributes significantly to maritime security in the modern world,” he wrote.
Finally, the Obama administration could finally get around to approving the final Alberta-to-Kansas leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. But in his recent New Yorker interview President Obama continued to temporize, and it’s estimated it would take a couple of years for crude to start moving through it once to decision was handed down.
The exact date at which the U.S. hits the wall remains “elusive,” the IEA reassures, and challenges to handling more growth are not immediate.
But they conclude: “there is a rising tide of technical and political debate about whether — or when — the US market may run out of options to accommodate further gains without regulatory adjustments.”