Oil trader Paul Vega is at the vanguard of shale’s next revolution. Driving his pick-up truck through the heartland of the Permian basin — the vast tract of west Texas scrub where one of history’s greatest oil booms means miles-long traffic jams — Vega says there’s more crude being pumped than America’s refineries can absorb. Today, the primary task of trading houses like his is getting the stuff overseas.
“We buy it, we truck it, we put it on a pipeline, and there it goes to the port — and from there to the world,” said Vega, who heads the office of global commodities trader Trafigura Group in Midland, the region’s oil industry hub. What started as an American phenomenon is now being felt around the world as U.S. oil exports surge to levels unthinkable only a few years ago. The flow of crude will keep growing over the next few years with huge consequences for the oil industry, global politics, and even whole economies. OPEC, for example, will face challenges keeping oil prices high, while Washington has a new, and potent, diplomatic weapon.
American oil exports stepped up a gear last year, jumping more than 70 percent to just over 2 million barrels a day, according to government data. “That could double again over the next few years as people continue to invest in shale,” said Russell Hardy, the head of top oil trader Vitol Group. Over the past four weeks, U.S. oil exports have averaged more than 3 million barrels a day — more than what Middle East petro-state Kuwait sells. “This is the new American energy era,” U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry told an industry conference in Houston earlier this month.
Oil traders and shale executives believe U.S. crude exports are set to reach 5 million barrels a day by late 2020, up another 70 percent from current levels. If the U.S. hits that target, America will be exporting, on a gross basis, more crude than every country in OPEC except Saudi Arabia. (On a net basis, the U.S. remains, just, a net importer, but that’s likely to change in the next few months.) “The second wave of the U.S. shale revolution is coming,” said Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency. “This will shake up international oil and gas trade flows, with profound implications for geopolitics.”