Gas Prices Are Pinching Again, and You Can Thank U.S. Trade Policy For Some of the Pain

The summer driving season is still weeks away, but rising U.S. gas prices are already back in the news.  Last week, the average price for regular gasoline at U.S. gas stations hit $3.6918 a gallon – the highest since March 22, 2013 and up 43 cents this year.  Much of this price depends on global supply and demand, but certainly not all of it.  In fact, two archaic, little-known U.S. policies – vigorously defended by the well-connected interest groups who benefit from them – restrict free trade in petroleum products and, as a result, force American consumers to pay considerably more at the pump.

First, the Jones Act - a 94-year-old law that requires all domestic seaborne trade to be shipped on U.S.-crewed, -owned, flagged and manufactured vessels – prevents cost-effective intrastate shipping of crude oil or refined products.  According to Bloomberg, there are only 13 ships that can legally move oil between U.S. ports, and these ships are “booked solid.”  As a result, abundant oil supplies in the Gulf Coast region cannot be shipped to other U.S. states with spare refinery capacity.  And, even when such vessels are available, the Jones Act makes intrastate crude shipping artificially expensive.  According to a 2012 report by the Financial Times, shipping U.S. crude from Texas to Philadelphia cost more than three times as much as shipping the same product on a foreign-flagged vessel to a Canadian refinery, even though the latter route is longer.

It doesn’t take an energy economist to see how the Jones Act’s byzantine protectionism leads to higher prices at the pump for American drivers.  According to one recent estimate, revoking the Jones Act would reduce U.S. gasoline prices by as much as 15 cents per gallon “by increasing the supply of ships able to shuttle the fuel between U.S. ports.”

Some of these costs could potentially be mitigated if it weren’t for the second U.S. trade policy inflating gas prices: restrictions on crude oil exports.  As I wrote for Cato last year, current U.S. law – implemented in the 1970s during a bygone era of energy scarcity and dependence – effectively bans the exportation of U.S. crude oil to any country other than Canada.  Because U.S. and Canadian refinery capacity is finite, America’s newfound energy abundance has led to a glut of domestic oil and caused domestic crude oil prices (West Texas Intermediate and Louisiana Light Sweet) to drop well below their global (Brent) counterpart.  One might think that this price divergence would mean lower U.S. gas prices, but such thinking fails to understand that U.S. gasoline exports may be freely exported, and that gasoline prices are set on global markets based on Brent crude prices.  As a result, several recent analyses – including ones by Citigroup [$], Resources for the Future and the American Petroleum Institute - have found that liberalization of U.S. crude oil exports would lower, not raise, gas prices by as much as 7 cents per gallon.

Thus, the Jones Act and the crude oil export ban – each implemented decades ago – together inflate U.S. gasoline prices by as much as 0.22 per gallon – or about 6% of the current price at your local gas station.  Not everyone in the United States, however, is harmed.  In the case of the Jones Act, the American shipping unions and shipbuilders that benefit from the law have long opposed any type of reforms, regardless of the pains imposed on the American economy and U.S. consumers.  The crude oil export restrictions, on the other hand, have found new support from a small group of U.S. refiners who profit handsomely from depressed domestic crude prices and the lack of any legal limits on their exports.  As is always the case with protectionism, these groups win and U.S. consumers lose.

Given this political dynamic, reform of either law appears unlikely in the near future, regardless of how dramatically the U.S. trade and energy landscape has changed since the laws were imposed.  So the next time you fill up the tank, note that about 6 percent of your bill pads the bottom lines of a few well-connected cronies.