The sea stretched toward the horizon last New Yearâ€™s Eve as the Theo T, a red-and-white tug at her side, slipped quietly beneath the Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge in Texas. Few Americans knew she was sailing into history.
Inside the Panamax oil tanker was a cargo that some on Capitol Hill had dubbed â€œLiquid American Freedomâ€ â€” the first U.S. crude bound for overseas markets after Congress lifted the 40-year export ban.
It was a landmark moment for the beleaguered energy industry and one heavy with both symbolism and economic implications. The Theo T was ushering in a new era as it left the U.S. Gulf Coast bound for France.
The implications â€” both financial and political â€” for energy behemoths such as Saudi Arabia and Russia are staggering, according to Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute think tank and a former venture capitalist. â€œItâ€™s a game changer,â€ he said.
For the Saudis and their OPEC cohorts, who collectively control 40 percent of the globeâ€™s oil supply, the specter of U.S. crude landing at European and Asian refineries further weakens their grip on world petroleum prices at a time they are already suffering from lower prices and stiffened competition. With Russia also seeing its influence over European energy buyers lessened, the two crude superpowers last week tentatively agreed to freeze oil output at near-record levels, the first such coordination in a decade and a half.
The political effects need not wait until U.S. shipments become more plentiful, Mills said. â€œIn geopolitics, psychology matters as much as actual transactions,â€ he said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is also poised to make its first shipments of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, from shale onto world markets within weeks, about two months later than scheduled. Cheniere Energy Inc. expects to have about 9 million metric tons a year of LNG available for its own portfolio from nine liquefaction trains being developed at two complexes in Texas. Thatâ€™s enough to power Norway and Denmark combined for a year.
The immediate beneficiaries of this renewed era of U.S. exports are gas and oil companies such as Continental Resources Inc., Chevron Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp. that have lobbied vigorously in recent years against the 1975 ban, which blocked all but a fraction of oil movements. It was imposed in the aftermath of a 1973-74 OPEC oil embargo, which crippled the U.S. economy and brought home the heavy dependence the country had developed on foreign suppliers.
Beyond corporations, the Dec. 18 lifting of the export ban by Congress and President Barack Obama created geopolitical winners and losers, too.
The U.S., awash in shale oil, has gained while powerful exporters like Russia and Saudi Arabia, for whom oil represents not just profits but also power, find themselves on the downswing.