You are here

US shale surge crashes into bottlenecks from pipelines to ports


THE US shale surge is crashing headlong into a barrage of bottlenecks.

From West Texas pipelines to Oklahoma storage centres and Gulf Coast export terminals, the delivery system for American crude is straining to keep up with soaring production. That's limiting the industry's ability to take full advantage of growing worldwide demand, with US barrels forced to take a US$9-a-barrel price discount to international crude.

Barclays analysts last week predicted "a new shock" for energy markets as a dearth of pipeline capacity near a key Oklahoma storage hub threatens the flow of oil. Pipeline shortages in Texas' Permian basin, meanwhile, may not clear until late 2019. The problems undercut hopes American output will stabilise global prices as crude from Venezuela and Iran is increasingly at risk.

"When you're forced to truck barrels about 500 miles to the Gulf Coast - yes, that's as inefficient as it sounds - the price differential 'blows out' to levels seen recently," Raymond James & Associates analysts wrote.

Your feedback is important to us

Tell us what you think. Email us at

Permian production is set to be "materially above" local refining and transportation capacity for the next 12 to 18 months, the Raymond James analysts, led by Darren Horowitz, said in their note.

Pipelines aren't the only problem. The US currently has only one export terminal that can accommodate the 2 million-barrel supertankers preferred by Asian and European customers, and expansions at other ports aren't expected to be complete before 2020, according to Sandy Fielden, director of oil research at Chicago-based Morningstar.

Exports have only been a major concern for the US oil industry since late 2015, when the government ended a 40-year ban on overseas shipments, and they've only been economically viable for the last 18 months or so, Mr Fielden said in a note to clients on Tuesday. "It wasn't even on the map in 2015," he added. "It's been a scramble to get organised." The rising cost of transporting oil from Permian wells in West Texas and New Mexico could slow the breakneck pace of growth until early 2019, analysts at Houston investment bank Tudor Pickering Holt & Co wrote in another note Tuesday.

Natural gas shipments also face constraints, they said. The "wall likely hits at a similar time to crude and could prove an equal barrier to growth," the analysts wrote.

Enticed by a rebound in global oil prices, US producers set a record this month, pumping 10.7 million barrels of oil a day. American crude exports climbed to a record 2.57 million barrels a day in the second week of May, according to the US Energy Department.

But the surge in output has laid bare the limitations of a system that evolved over the last half-century to move foreign oil into the US, not the other way around.

In the Permian, the problem's been magnified by a tight labour market for drivers and competition for trucks that are also needed to deliver sand and chemicals for hydraulic fracturing operations, according to the Raymond James analysts.

Further down the supply chain, the "next bottleneck" looks likely to develop around the crude supply and distribution hub in Cushing, Oklahoma, Barclays said. Inventories continue to grow there due to "insufficient takeaway capacity," analyst Paul Cheng said in a note to clients. Rising output from the Bakken shale play in North Dakota will add to the pressure in coming months, Mr Cheng said.

Meanwhile, exporters along the Gulf Coast are scrambling to cope with the new reality. The region's key shipping hubs - Corpus Christi, Houston and Beaumont in Texas, and St James in Louisiana - plan to add at least 54 million barrels of storage capacity starting next year, a 25 per cent increase, Mr Fielden said in his report. Nine projects will expand docks at 40 separate marine terminals.

For now, only the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, or LOOP, can accommodate a fully laden Very Large Crude Carrier, one of the 2 million-barrel tankers that offer the most efficient shipping to customers. "In a year's time, we're going to have a bunch of new pipelines and all of that capacity is heading straight for the export docks," Mr Fielden said. "Next year's when we'll see the real potential constraints if we don't build those out." WP

BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to