Murkowski’s oil export effort gains traction, yet fate uncertain

Photo: Liz Ruskin
Photo: Liz Ruskin

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is making progress on ending the U.S. ban on crude oil exports. It’s one of her biggest goals as chairman of the Senate Energy Committee. But powerful interests are fighting to keep the ban in place.

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You may not hear them in Alaska, but as efforts to end the 40-year-old ban get closer to the finish line, industry groups have begun airing TV spots to press the issue.

“Who loves the ban on U.S. crude oil exports? Iran and Russia. Not exactly our best friends,” says one ad from the American Petroleum Institued that began airing last week in a dozen states and the District of Columbia. “Lifting the ban would increase domestic oil production and that strengthens our national security. With America’s energy boom, our allies don’t have to rely on energy from Iran and Russia.”

A bill to end the export ban cleared a House subcommittee last week, and a prominent Republican on the House Energy Committee predicts the ban may be dead in a matter of months. That would be quite a coup for champions of oil exports, like Sen. Murkowski, who has already moved an export bill through her own committee, despite substantial Democratic opposition.

“I am not discounting the opportunity to advance it this year,” she said in an interview. “There are some who have suggested it’s not possible to advance it before the end of 2015. I think most have been quite surprised at how readily we’ve been able to move the discussion on this issue.”

Murkowski was the first lawmaker in years to take aim at the ban, around the start of last year. But those who want to keep the ban in place are ramping up, too. The issue splits the oil industry. Oil producers say the ban makes no sense anymore. It was adopted in the 1970s, at a time of scarcity after the Arab oil embargo. The ban does not apply to refined products, and it doesn’t apply to Alaskan crude, which is sometimes shipped overseas.

Oil refiners are big defenders of the ban. They say if crude can be shipped overseas, many of their refineries would have to close. A recent government report says ending the ban would cut into refiners’ profits. The United Steelworkers union wants to keep the ban, too. It represents some 30,000 refinery employees. A few environmental and consumer groups oppose exports, too. In Congress, the divide is largely along party lines, in part because oil producing states are more Republican, and refining states are more often represented by Democrats. Here’s part of the voiceover in an ad sponsored by a group called Allied Progress  that targets Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., for allegedly wavering:

“Now, he might break his word by letting big oil ship crude overseas. Lifting the crude oil ban could raise gas prices, cost U.S. jobs and help grow China’s economy while putting our energy future at greater risk from terrorists like ISIS.”

(The ad ran for about a week. Allied Progress took it down after Menendez clarified that he still supports the export ban.)

Many studies show that allowing exports would not hike prices at the pump, but ban defenders aren’t buying it. Recent polling in two Senate battleground states shows voters are confused about that question, but the research suggests voters are inclined to punish lawmakers who press to allow exports. At least, that’s what pollsters found in Illinois and Pennsylvania, home to some of the nation’s larger refineries.

In any case, lawmakers may see the issue as too politically risky to take up before the 2016 elections, so its passage in Congress is hardly a sure bet.