Texas is now home to bargain-hunting Japanese oil buyers

Heesu Lee, Yuji Okada and Debjit Chakraborty (c) 2014, Bloomberg News. SEOUL — As U.S. lawmakers debate whether to free up more than the tiny amount of oil output currently eligible for export, buyers from Asia are moving in.

Mitsui & Co., Japan’s second-biggest trader, has doubled employees relocated to Houston to 50 over the past two years while Tokyo-based Cosmo Oil opened an office in the oil hub in April and South Korea’s SK Innovation is bolstering its presence in the region. They are now limited to buying a product called condensate, an ultra-light oil that accounts for about 8 percent of U.S. output, but are positioning themselves to purchase more if Congress ends export restrictions.

Their move into Houston illustrates the challenge for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries as the highest American output in more than three decades lures the group’s traditional customers and benchmark prices tumble. OPEC members are responding by offering the deepest discounts in more than a decade, sparking speculation they’re embarking on a price war as demand slows.

“Asia has been dependent on the Middle East, but now refiners see more possibilities of importing U.S. crude,” Ehsan Ul-Haq, a senior market consultant at KBC Energy Economics in Walton-on-Thames, England, said by phone Dec. 8. “Although the U.S. is currently not exporting any oil with the exception of condensates, it’s going to be an opportunity.”

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The ban was passed by Congress in 1975 in response to the Arab oil embargo that cut global supplies, quadrupled crude prices and created gasoline shortages in the U.S. at a time when the country’s own crude production was shrinking. Now that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are unleashing record volumes of light oil from U.S. shale formations, federal policy makers are facing increasing pressure to ease the restriction and Asian buyers are circling.

They’re already benefiting from regulation that allows lightly processed oil to be exported. Enterprise Products Partners and Pioneer Natural Resources got approval earlier this year from the U.S. Commerce Department to ship some condensates overseas. BHP Billiton Ltd. is exporting without explicit approval, prompting speculation more companies will follow suit.

“The ban on crude exports is really an artifact of the 1970s,” Daniel Yergin, an energy analyst and Pulitzer Prize- winning author, said in an e-mail. “The U.S. will still be a net importer of declining amounts of crude, but exporting one quality and importing another to help balance the market.”

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, introduced a bill Tuesday that would remove all restrictions on crude oil exports.

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Houston-based Enterprise is seeking to export 600,000 barrels a month of U.S. condensate to Asia next year. Melbourne- based BHP is offering 650,000 barrels for delivery in January.

The light, sweet oil from North American shale deposits may be more attractive to overseas processors because many domestic plants prefer to use lower quality crudes. Most U.S. refineries were built to run oil with higher levels of sulfur and greater viscosity than the grades being pumped from shale formations, Amos Hochstein, special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs for the State Department, said in an interview in Singapore on Oct. 30.

“Mitsui wants to take part in the oil-export business from the U.S. because for clients in Asia, it helps to diversify supply from the Middle East,” Tomohiro Sunada, a Tokyo-based manager with the company’s energy strategic planning division, said in an interview last month.

The company is seeking to boost shipments of ultra-light crude to Asia and expand its Gulf Coast operations, Sunada said.

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Japan relies on the Middle East for 83 percent of its oil imports, South Korea is dependent on the region for more than 87 percent, and India gets almost two-thirds of its petroleum from the area.

Cosmo Oil opened its office in Houston because of the opportunities to ship crude from North and Latin America, Senior Managing Executive Officer Hisashi Kobayashi said in Tokyo on Nov. 17. SK Innovation started commercial production of a 100,000 barrel-a-day plant that processes condensates at its Incheon refinery in July. The U.S. is producing about 650,000 barrels a day of the ultra-light oil.

“Our U.S. office is getting more important” as the company expands its exploration and production operations, Lee Mi Ji, a spokeswoman for SK, said by phone on Dec. 5. “We are well aware of the rising significance of the U.S. oil market.”

India’s biggest refiner is testing Canadian and Mexican crudes in anticipation the ban will be lifted, cutting prices and boosting global supplies.

“We are indeed looking forward to U.S. crude coming into the market,” B. Ashok, the chairman of Indian Oil, said in an interview in New Delhi last month.

South Korea imported 1.6 million barrels of oil from the U.S. and Canada in September and October, the first such shipments since at least 2005, and Japan in October got its U.S. oil for the first time in four years.

The lifting of the ban on U.S. oil exports “will substantially reduce the cost of bringing crude” to South Korea, Chang Woo Seck, head of the corporate planning office at SK Innovation, said in an earnings call on Oct. 28.

“Right now, U.S. refiners enjoy higher refining margins compared to refiners in other countries” because of their access to U.S. oil, said Seck. “For refiners like us who are in east Asia, it will be hugely beneficial.”

— With assistance from Yuriy Humber in Tokyo, Dan Murtaugh in Houston, Laura Litvan in Washington and Lynn Doan in San Francisco.