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Feature: US Congress likely to be inactive on crude export issue this year

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Feature: US Congress likely to be inactive on crude export issue this year


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When a leading Washington think tank this week quantified a range of economic benefits to dropping restrictions on US crude oil crude exports and a former key Obama administration offered a robust argument in support a liberalized crude export regime, members of Congress collectively shrugged.

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House and Senate aides said Wednesday that while there is growing support within Congress to end the 40-year-old restrictions on the export of US crude oil, the debate to do so is not one they are willing to wade into this year.

Meanwhile, several congressional leaders, who are largely seen as supporters of US producers, have declined to speak in favor of a crude export policy change over fears that a policy change may be linked to an increase in gasoline prices, even if economic studies claim that the opposite will occur if US crude exports ramp up.

Industry and congressional sources said Wednesday that many members of Congress, particularly Republicans, are trying to square their arguments in favor of increased domestic production with a push to ship US oil to foreign markets.

"It's not an argument that can be explained on a bumper sticker," said one industry lobbyist. "And if they don't have to make the argument, they're not going to."

On Tuesday, Brookings Institution's Energy Security Initiative released a study which claimed that dropping US export restrictions next year would cause gasoline prices to fall 9-12 cents/gal and US production to increase by 1.5-2 million b/d.

At the same time, Larry Summers, a former senior economic adviser to President Barack Obama, said allowing US crude exports will have a range of benefits, from lower gasoline prices to improved geopolitics. It was, arguably, the most forceful case yet for an end to crude export restrictions from a former administration official.

But members of Congress and their staffs largely offered no rejection to the developments, signifying the current state of inaction in the US House and Senate on crude export policy.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee may take up legislation on crude exports early next year, most likely if Republicans gain control of the Senate and Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican and a leading supporter of US oil exports, becomes committee chairman.

But senators on the committee are mainly waiting to see if the administration moves to change policy without Congress.

The Commerce Department recently ruled that it would allow Pioneer Natural Resources and Enterprise Products Partners to export certain processed condensate to foreign markets, a path other US producers are eyeing. But Commerce has stressed that this was not a change in existing policy and the administration has given no signal that it is doing anything more than studying the export issue, industry and congressional sources said.

In April, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, introduced the Crude Oil Export Act (HR 4349) to end the restrictions on crude exports. The bill has eight co-sponsors, all Republicans, but is not expected to be brought to the House floor during this Congress.

Earlier this month, Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican and the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, came out in support of ending restrictions on crude exports.

But other House Republican energy leaders, including Michigan Representative Fred Upton, the energy committee's current chairman, and Kentucky Representative Ed Whitfield, chairman of the Energy and Power subcommittee, have remained silent on the issue.

"They're still studying the issue," a committee aide said Wednesday. "We're doing our due diligence in this area."

The committee is expected to hold public hearing and roundtables on the export issue and may consider legislation, but not until next year, the aide said.

At the same time, members of Congress are not being pushed yet by industry lobbyists to address the issue currently. That will likely change after November's mid-term elections, industry sources said.

"It's coming," one industry source said. "It's just not really prime territory for campaign season."

--Brian Scheid,
--Edited by Katharine Fraser,