Should the US export oil?

The US should lift its limitations on oil exports, according to a growing chorus of those in the oil and gas industry. But exporting US oil will be a tough case to make to politicians and consumers, who still see high prices at the gas pump and worry about the environmental consequences of more drilling.

Jim Urquhart/Reuters/File
A mixture of oil, diesel fuel, water, and mud sprays as roughnecks wrestle pipe on a True Company oil drilling rig outside Watford, N.D. Advances in drilling techniques have elevated US oil production to levels not seen since the 1980s, spurring the industry to consider pushing to end a ban on US exports of oil.

The US oil and gas industry's trade association is contemplating a push to lift a decades-old ban on US oil exports.

The 1970s era law is no longer relevant, critics of the ban say, since oil production in the United States is booming and demand is waning. Lifting the ban would spur job growth at home and create efficiencies in the global oil market, they say.

It will be a tough case to make to politicians and consumers who still see high prices at the gas pump, despite the hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil flowing each day out of shale rock formations in Texas, North Dakota, and elsewhere across the US. Why send those barrels overseas, they might ask, and open up the US to further dependency on foreign oil? 

“Export issues are something we’re going to have to address,” John Felmy, the chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil and gas trade association, told Bloomberg Wednesday. “It’s a debate we have to have.” 

The US is the world's largest consumer of petroleum products, according to the US Energy Information Administration, using 18.6 million barrels per day in 2012. It has long depended on foreign sources to supply much of its oil, made painfully obvious by the oil shocks of the 1970s Arab embargoes.

The restrictions on exports in most cases were implemented largely in response to those shocks, in an effort to protect domestic oil supply as a national security interest. The US still exports a small amount of oil today, in addition to about 3 million barrels a day of gasoline, diesel fuel, heating oil, jet fuel, and other refined petroleum products. But for decades after the ban was implemented, the idea of exporting oil in significant quantities wasn't even on the table.

That is changing. Advances in drilling techniques have elevated US oil production to levels not seen since the 1980s. A sluggish economy and more efficiencies in cars and appliances have pushed demand down. US imports of crude oil and petroleum products peaked at 13.7 million barrels per day in 2005 and have been on the slide ever since. Last year they dropped to 10.6 million barrels a day. In September, China overtook the US as the world's largest importer of oil.   

It's why some say it's time to open the spigot.

"Exporting energy is good for the economy," wrote Blake Clayton, an adjunct fellow for energy at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a June policy memo. "Letting drillers reap extra profits from selling crude oil overseas, if the market dictates, would provide greater incentives for drilling, stimulating new supply. It would also encourage investment in oil and gas production in the United States rather than abroad."

But gas prices across the US still average above $3 a gallon, and letting US oil go overseas in large amounts isn't likely to go over well with America's driving (and voting) public.

"American oil should be kept here to benefit our consumers, not shipped to Europe or Asia to help boost oil company profits," then-Rep. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts, said in a March statement introducing legislation that would place a moratorium on US oil and gas exports. 

Increasing oil exports also means more hydraulic fracturing in the US, which raises concerns about the environmental effects of oil wells creeping closer and closer toward communities. And what happens if and when the domestic oil boom comes to an end? Is the US left more exposed to the ups and downs of the turbulent global oil market? It's an emerging debate.

“Supporting the free market and supporting open trade is a key priority for our industry as well as the President," API spokesman Reid Porter said in an e-mailed statement. "It creates efficiencies, creates jobs, and increases revenue to our government.  These points are often made as part of our public discourse in the context of API’s priority issues.”

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