NEW YORK – American oil companies have not been allowed to export crude for 40 years, but the industry wants to change that, even though the U.S. still consumes far more oil than it produces.
A surprising surge in domestic production of light, sweet crude – a particular type of oil that foreign refiners covet – has triggered growing calls to lift the restrictions, which were put in place after the Arab oil embargo of 1973.
But the idea is touching a nerve that remains raw four decades after oil shortages crippled the economy and led to the law that banned crude exports without a special license.
For 40 years, energy policy has been shaped by that experience of the 1970s, says Daniel Yergin, energy historian, author and vice chairman of the research and analysis firm IHS. But we are in a different world. Neither our logistics nor our thinking has caught up with the dramatic changes in North America.
Skeptics worry that lifting the restrictions would lead to higher gasoline prices and decreased energy security. Economists and analysts argue that it would have little or no effect on prices, largely because the U.S. already exports record amounts of gasoline and diesel, which are not restricted.
Some experts say allowing crude exports could actually improve energy security by encouraging more domestic production.
Major oil companies such as Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips, along with the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas lobbying group, are the biggest proponents of ending the ban. On Tuesday, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski released a paper on energy exports describing the nation’s export laws as antiquated and urging President Barack Obama and the Senate to allow crude exports. Late last year, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz suggested at an industry gathering that it may be time to revisit export laws.
But easing the restrictions will be politically difficult, especially in an election year. In a recent letter to Obama, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez made an argument that is likely to resonate with voters: Crude oil that is produced in the U.S. should be used to lower prices here at home, not sent to the other side of the world.
Environmental groups have worries, too, mainly that by allowing U.S. companies to export crude to get higher prices, producers will be able to afford to go after oil deposits that require more elaborate, more environmentally damaging techniques.