When an energy bill is introduced in Congress that promises an epic change in the global balance of power, it’s natural that lawmakers, media, and everyday people will debate its merits.
And the repeal of the 40-year-old ban on exporting crude oil represents such a bill.
The ban has been in place since the 1970s, when the U.S. suffered a devastating oil embargo courtesy of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The embargo instilled fears about U.S. energy dependency and OPEC’s power as a “swing producer,” able to manipulate global petroleum supplies and prices at will. By December 1975, President Gerald Ford signed a ban on most U.S. energy exports that remains in place today.
But today, America’s boom in shale oil and gas exploration has pushed domestic petroleum stockpiles to near historic levels. Thanks to innovations in drilling technologies, the U.S. actually surpassed both Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s top energy producer in 2014, churning out almost nine million barrels of oil per day –80 percent more than in 2008.
All the signs are pointing to our future as the world’s energy superpower.
In Congress, momentum for energy policy change is gathering. And with pending legislation in both the House and Senate that endorse lifting the ban, it seems as though America is about to cross a great divide.
Should we adopt a “smart,” “all-in” energy policy that includes renewables and environmental protections, but also recognizes that 80 percent of the world’s energy needs are still met by fossil fuels?
Will we recognize that lifting the decades old ban on crude oil is a significant step toward creating an energy interdependent global marketplace – one that provides a stable, alternate energy resource to countries otherwise dependent on hostile oil-producing regimes?
The devil is in the details, of course. But the momentum is growing rapidly.
On Friday, we expect a full House vote on a separate bill to green-light all crude oil and natural gas exports. Faced with plummeting oil and gas prices and economic doldrums that have reverberated throughout the U.S. and the world, the GOP-controlled House, led by current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), is very likely to pass the measure.
The Obama administration has indicated that any move to lift the export ban should be the U.S. Commerce Department’s decision. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the fact that Republicans are advocating for oil exports shows they are in the pocket of oil and natural gas interests, and Obama will oppose any Republican-sponsored bill.
But several Democratic leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), now suggest that compromise is in order.
An energy “grand bargain” could be struck if comprehensive legislation offered incentives for both parties to act. In this scenario, Heitkamp predicts, Obama would sign an energy bill passed by Congress provided that a package lifting the export ban also included strong incentives and tax breaks for renewables and climate protections.
Removing the export ban will certainly bolster energy companies, currently crippled by low oil prices, and desperate for reformed export rules that would help keep our domestic energy industry alive. But more than bootstrapping our own economy, a vote to end the U.S. crude export ban will usher in a new era of thinking about global energy interdependence and the power of free markets.
It will be a clear message that we stand ready help to vulnerable nations everywhere – from Eastern Europe to Africa to parts of the Middle East, South America and Asia – to find alternate routes of supply that are stable, fairly priced, and secure.
And we can only hope the U.S. will take the leap.