Joe Biden’s election as president would dash the US oil industry’s hopes for a swift recovery from this year’s crash, with new drilling limits cutting production and leaving the country more reliant on foreign supplies.
Even so, as some big producers begin a transition to cleaner energy and a shrunken sector nurses its wounds after the oil price rout, the industry’s preference in November’s election has become less clear-cut.
“A Biden victory will be a shot in the arm for oil’s competitors, putting the federal government’s weight behind the energy transition and low-carbon technologies,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy policy expert and professor at Tufts University. “But a Biden win is the least of the oil industry’s problems right now. Tougher mileage standards don’t mean much if people can’t afford a new car.”
US oil output, which hit a peak of almost 13m barrels a day last November, has collapsed since the coronavirus pandemic hit global demand and a Saudi-Russian price war sent US oil prices spiralling below zero.
Donald Trump’s campaign has depicted Mr Biden as a captive of the Democratic party’s left wing who would end an era of American “energy dominance”, which has included a brief period in the past year when the US was a net exporter of oil.
“Joe Biden and the radical left want to crush American energy and crush American energy jobs,” Vice-President Mike Pence said this month in a campaign speech in Pennsylvania.
Mr Biden has dismissed claims he would ban fracking, the technology that enabled the shale revolution and made the US the world’s biggest oil and gas producer.
“Fracking has to continue because we need a transition,” the former vice-president said during a recent meeting with voters in Pittsburgh, close to the heart of swing state Pennsylvania’s prolific shale gas industry. There’s “no rationale to eliminate, right now, fracking”.
Mr Biden’s climate plan promises $2tn of clean-energy spending over four years but industry groups and analysts have focused on his pledge to ban drilling on federal land.
This accounts for a nearly quarter of US oil output, according to the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington lobby group. The API says the ban would increase US oil imports, which exceeded 9m b/d last year, by 20 per cent and cut $700bn off US gross domestic product by 2030.
Rising oil and gas exports — approved by the Obama-Biden administration — had “made America a leader in the energy space”, said Frank Macchiarola, a senior vice-president at the API. “We’re concerned about policies that would harm that progress.”
Analysts at S&P Global Platts calculate that Mr Biden’s federal drilling ban — covering offshore drilling as well as some parts of the onshore shale patch — would leave the US producing 2m b/d less oil in 2025.
New Mexico’s fast-growing oil sector would be hit hardest, they say, because so much of its shale acreage is federally controlled.
“If they’re not able to work, they’ll go elsewhere.” said Alexis Johnson, a Republican congressional candidate in New Mexico who worked in the oil sector. The Biden campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Some analysts are more sanguine about the overall impact of a federal drilling ban on US supply.
Rystad Energy, a research company, said the policy would “hardly have any impact on nationwide oil and gas output in the medium term”, given abundant drilling opportunities in private land from Pennsylvania to Texas.
“Ironically, a ban on new exploration . . . on federal land might result in increased interest in US onshore development, as many operators with a presence in the Gulf of Mexico, primarily the supermajors, also hold significant onshore positions,” said Artem Abramov, Rystad’s head of shale research.
But the oil sector is hardly unanimous in its support for Mr Trump — the API recently criticised the president’s extension of a drilling ban offshore Florida.
A low point for some shale executives came in July when Mr Trump used a speech in Midland, Texas to thank Russia and Saudi Arabia for helping him end the price war.
Privately, some executives said Mr Trump had not followed through on pledges to assist their struggling sector — and the price crash, engineered by Saudi Arabia to hurt the US oil sector, was not over.
Another 13 oilfield services companies and six producers have gone bankrupt since Mr Trump’s Midland visit, according to data from law firm Haynes and Boone. Oil sector job losses have now reached about 120,000, according to Rystad.
The sector’s equity performance in the Trump years has also been bleak, losing more than half of its value even while the S&P 500 has risen 46 per cent.
It leaves some in the industry much less concerned about a Biden victory than campaign ads suggest.
Matt Gallagher, chief executive of shale producer Parsley Energy, said his company had “thrived under vastly different administrations” and noted that “oil prices often increase when a Democrat is in the White House”.
Mr Biden “is a realist”, said Daniel Yergin, vice-chairman of IHS Markit and author of The New Map.
Only Saudi Arabia and Russia would benefit if Mr Biden oversaw a period of falling US oil production and exports, Mr Yergin said. “I don’t think Biden is going to want to be the president who presides over the most rapid increase in US oil imports in history.”