The Push to Repeal the Crude Export Ban Shows Shale Companies Are Getting Desperate

AP Photo/Eric Gay, File

An oil tanker passes a fisherman as it enters a channel near Port Aransas, Texas, heading for the Port of Corpus Christi in July 2015. 

Oil producers and their friends in Washington are lobbying hard to lift restrictions on the export of crude oil. Two weeks ago, the House voted in favor of a bill introduced by Representative Joe Barton to eliminate restrictions on exporting crude oil and amend the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, which was put in place following the oil embargo that had caused price shocks and long gas-station lines just a few years before.

The bill cleared the House 261 to 159, with support from most Republicans and 26 Democrats. But it faces much more of an uphill battle in the Senate. In some ways, the fight over crude export restrictions may seem a little Beltway-insider to most Americans, but it actually provides a critical window into discussions about U.S. energy priorities.

Let’s start with some background. Often referred to as a “crude export ban,” the current policy places restrictions only on the export of crude, which is unrefined petroleum, and doesn’t affect refined petroleum products, such as gasoline. The term “ban” is a little misleading: In actuality, the U.S. is now exporting nearly 500,000 barrels a day of crude because of exemptions for certain types of crude (like heavier California crude or ultra-light condensate), and for certain origins or destinations (like from Alaska’s North Slope, or to Canada). A 2014 report from IHS, a leading information and analytics company, stated that if restrictions are lifted, production could jump by three million barrels a day. How much of that would end up being exported, though, is unclear.

Despite these exemptions, supporters of Barton’s bill call the current policy outdated and want to see zero restrictions on exporting crude. Barton, a Texas Republican, contends, “Lifting the ban on crude exports will put Americans to work, enhance our national security, and lower gas prices.”

The oil industry is actually divided over the bill. Producers are in favor of lifting restrictions because they can fetch a higher price for their product with access to the global market. Refiners, and the many union workers they employ, including the United Steelworkers, are against lifting restrictions. So are environmental groups, because it would trigger more drilling and shipping—and greater threats to the environment and public health.

Barton’s claim that the bill will reduce gas prices may also be exaggerated. One report, by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), states that if restrictions are removed, gasoline and other petroleum prices “would be either unchanged or slightly reduced” and it would likely vary by which part of the country you live in.

But one thing is certain: Lifting the restrictions would be a boon for oil producers at a time when the industry faces economic pressures from low prices. However, it’s also a time when scientists say we should be drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and that one-third of all oil reserves should stay in the ground.

Trouble in the Oil Patch

In the last year, the price of a barrel of oil took a steep dive. West Texas Intermediate crude, which is used as a benchmark for U.S. oil prices, was selling for more than $100 a barrel in June of 2014 before prices crashed by more than 50 percent. They’ve hovered around $50 a barrel for much of 2015, inching above $60 earlier in the summer but dipping as low as $38 a barrel near the end of August.

The fall in prices has largely been attributed to too much oil on the global market coupled with falling demand. “In a lot of ways, the success of the U.S. producer is what’s caused those prices to come down,” explains Kurt Barrow, a vice president of oil markets at IHS. The U.S. has done its part to contribute to the glut: Surging oil production thanks to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of shale led to a 62 percent increase in production from 2009 to 2014. The industry drilled with abandon and now is laying off workers and reeling from low prices.

But the U.S. is only part of the story. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has also refused to cut production, even as prices have fallen. Their strategy has largely been seen as a way to try to crash the U.S. shale market, which needs higher prices to recoup investment costs.

Is OPEC’s plan working? So far there hasn’t been an all-out crash, but warning signs abound. In October, the number of drilling rigs in action was the lowest in five years. “There is a lot of stress in the industry,” said Barrow. “You can see it through their staff reductions and capital expenditure reductions and the drill rig activity that has dropped off dramatically.”

In September, the EIA reported that the most recent financial statements of many onshore oil operations showed “continued financial strain.” In the last year, these companies spent 83 percent of their operating cash just on debt payments. And things could soon get worse, as October is a month when credit redeterminations take place and oil companies could see their access to new cash curtailed.

IHS Vice Chairman Daniel Yergin told Fortune that right now, “it’s basically panic level.” Prices could dip even lower, as OPEC shows no signs of cutting production. And if the Iran deal goes through, more oil could come on the market, further lowering prices in the near term. “The industry response is canceling, delaying, and postponing projects that, if you add it all up, would be worth hundreds of billions of dollars,” said Yergin.

Crude Differences

With many oil producers struggling, Barrow says companies see lifting restrictions as “more important than ever.” But export restrictions are a small part of a much bigger problem for the industry.

Barrow helped author the 2014 IHS report that said removing the export ban would boost production in the U.S. by about three million barrels a day. The report concludes that such good news for oil companies is also good news for the whole U.S. economy.

But there are tradeoffs. In August, the Center for American Progress (CAP) looked at how those three million barrels would impact global greenhouse gas emissions. CAP found that between 2015 and 2035, an additional 515 million metric tons of carbon would be released each year, an amount equal to the emissions 135 coal-fired power plants.

Additionally, new drilling and construction of new oil infrastructure could result in the loss of more than 2,000 square miles of land each year from 2016 to 2030—an area larger than Arches National Park. And it would mean 4,500 additional train cars each day full of crude, most of which is likely to be the light, sweet crude that has proven highly volatile in derailments.

A contributor to CAP’s research was Senior Fellow Matt Lee-Ashley, who summed up the issue by saying, “In a lot of ways, this is a debate not about whether we should be selling crude oil but whether we should be refining it in the U.S. or somewhere else.”

The United Steelworkers (USW) union is one group that wants to keep more crude refining in the U.S. The union represents 30,000 workers in the oil and gas refinery sector. Lifting restrictions would create huge incentives to move chemical and refining capacity into other countries where they don’t have the same environmental and labor regulations, said USW Legislative Representative Roy Houseman.

“If Congress lifts the crude oil export ban, gas prices will increase and some U.S. refineries could be forced to shut down, sending tens of thousands of jobs overseas,” USW President Leo Gerard told the Senate Banking Committee in July. “Let’s be clear, exporting a natural resource to have it refined overseas and imported back into the U.S. is a net job loser for America.”

Most Americans also seem to agree that keeping crude in the country to meet domestic needs is best. The U.S. reduced the amount of crude it imported in the last six years, but it’s still bringing in about seven million barrels a day. A poll from Hart Research conducted in December 2014 found that 82 percent of voters want oil produced here to meet U.S. needs instead of those of foreign countries. And 69 percent oppose more exports.

Political Future

In the debate over the potential impacts of lifting the restrictions, there are a lot of unknowns, in part because the oil market can be volatile and is pinned to geopolitics well beyond U.S. control, including the strength of the economy in China and Russia, strife in the Middle East, and how much OPEC countries are pumping. From the consumer point of view, Barrow says, “What happens in the oil patch in the U.S. is not really what affects the prices at the pump.”

With the Senate now taking up the issue of lifting restrictions, it may be a harder sell than in the House.

“As the debate heats up in the Senate, members may want to look for a more comprehensive energy approach here, instead of a policy clearly aimed at providing benefits to one segment of one industry,” says Lee-Ashley. “It’s a $30 billion deal for oil producers and it’s not clear who else benefits from it.”

And if the Senate does pass it, the White House doesn’t look likely to sign it—at least not in the bill’s current form. “Congress should be focusing its efforts on supporting our transition to a low-carbon economy,” a White House statement said. “It could do this through a variety of measures, including ending the billions of dollars a year in federal subsidies provided to oil companies and instead investing in wind, solar, energy efficiency, and other clean technologies to meet America's energy needs.”

Yet even if the bill is scuttled this year, it’s likely to resurface after the 2016 elections. GOP presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have come out in favor of lifting restrictions, while Hillary Clinton opposes it unless there are “concessions from the oil and gas industry,” according to The Hill. It’s not clear whether some Democrats would be willing to lend their support if tax credits for wind and solar energy set to expire in 2016 are extended, or if other environmental measures are added to the bill.

“Should renewable tax credits be extended, should conservation programs be extended, should we be investing money into wildlife and habitat conservation?” asks Lee-Ashley. “These are good questions and should be a part of the conversation.”

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