LONDON, Sept 30 (Reuters) - The U.S. government may want to consider the pros and cons of exporting oil from its vast Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) if there is a global supply emergency, a senior U.S. energy official said on Monday.
Rising flows of light sweet oil from shale plays in Texas and North Dakota have slashed U.S. reliance on imports over the past five years, pushing the world's top consumer towards near self-sufficiency in oil, said Adam Sieminski, head of the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the statistical branch of the Department of Energy.
"Policy makers need to look at the management of the SPR - it's full of light sweet crude that was designed and set up to move inland," Sieminski said at an energy roundtable on Monday. "In a global crisis, they may want to export oil from the SPR."
The SPR is currently set up to provide oil to U.S. consumers, but the surge in U.S. output upset the rather static domestic oil market, which for decades had been geared toward sending light sweet imported crude oil from the Gulf Coast to Midcontinent refineries.
Those plants are now receiving more crude from shale as well as from Canadian oil sands, drastically reducing the need for imported crude and buffering the regions against supply outages abroad.
In the event of a disruption of global oil supplies, U.S. refiners may no longer need much of the crude now housed in the SPR. It now contains 262 million barrels of sweet (low sulfur) crude and 434 million barrels of sour (high sulfur) crude. http://www.spr.doe.gov/dir/dir.html
U.S. President Barack Obama has taken a more pro-active approach towards tapping reserves and in 2011 released 30 million barrels of crude from the SPR as part of a coordinated effort with the International Energy Agency (IEA) to counter disruptions in Libya as Brent prices climbed north of $120 a barrel.
A move toward that level in August, once again prompted by Libyan export problems and the threat of a strike against Syria, prompted discussions between Washington and outside energy experts on the state of oil markets though there was no sign a release from the near 700 million-barrel reserve was imminent. Prices have since fallen to $108 a barrel.
The IEA said at the time that while high prices were a concern for the OECD countries which make up its membership, oil markets remained well supplied.
Sieminski said the Paris-based IEA, adviser to industrialized countries and manager of their strategic reserves, may want to pay more attention to increases in oil prices rather than acting solely on major supply disruptions.
"The IEA may want to take a more contemporary view of energy markets," he said. "The oil price is a key signal now - more so than a shortfall in volumes."
He stressed that the EIA does not set U.S. energy policy.
"But policy makers in Washington and at the IEA in Paris are increasingly confronted by market changes not anticipated just a few short years ago and might need to consider the current rules in light of these changes," he said.
U.S. SELF SUFFICIENCY
U.S. oil production jumped from 5 million barrels per day in 2008 to nearly 7.5 million bpd in July thanks to advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing known as "fracking."
Most of that new production of light, sweet crude is now flooding into the Gulf Coast refining complex, and the EIA estimates output could top 8 million bpd in 2014.
At the same time, U.S. consumption has been declining and demand from China, set to become the world's biggest oil importer next month, according to the EIA, has been rising. Such changes have shifted global oil markets as well, altering the equation for energy policy setters across the globe.
"The United States could potentially become nearly self-sufficient in oil in 10 to 15 years," said Sieminski. "Washington will still be very concerned about international affairs for many reasons, including the fact that the price of oil is set on global markets."
"This will lead to inevitable questions about China's role in stabilizing oil prices as well as its role in the Gulf," he said.
The U.S. shale revolution has also ignited the debate on whether and when to ease restrictions on exports of crude. While that abundance has made the U.S. a net exporter of fuel, overseas shipments of U.S. oil had been viewed as politically untenable for decades, especially after the oil embargoes in the 1970s.
Currently only small volumes are shipped abroad to Canada, but if the refining complex in the Gulf Coast, where many large plants have been designed to process heavier, sour crudes from overseas, become saturated with light sweet crude, experts say pressure to export could grow.
"There's a surfeit of light, sweet oil that's not well-designed for complex refineries," said Sieminski. (Editing by Matthew Robinson in New York and James Jukwey)
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