Time to Lift the Oil Export Ban

Today, there is only one major product the U.S. bans from export.  Surprisingly, it is a product in which the U.S. is nearly self-sufficient.

Forty years ago, it may have made sense to ban the export of oil, but the U.S. is now producing an excess of certain grades of oil.  That oil would find eager buyers overseas, spurring growth in our economy.

According to one estimate, lifting the export ban would result in exportation of an additional 500,000 barrels per day by 2017.  That is only 5% of current production, the same amount of oil that is now exported to Canada (under an exemption to the export ban).  The real issue is the benefit that exporting would provide to the U.S. economy, and there can be no doubt that the benefit would be substantial. 

As it is, overseas refiners are eager to purchase U.S. production of light sweet crude.  This fact presents the U.S. with an enormous opportunity, since it is precisely this grade of oil (West Texas Intermediate or “WTI”) that American refiners find it difficult to process in quantities now being produced.  Because many U.S. refineries can’t economically handle light sweet crude, it is piling up in storage tanks.

WTI now sells at a significant discount to oil overseas, and not because it is of lower quality – it is actually of higher quality.  Lifting the export ban would even the playing field overnight, transforming WTI into one of the world’s most desirable commodities.

Increased drilling would produce high-paying jobs both at the wellhead and throughout the supply chain.  Every industry from steel producers to railroads to heavy equipment makers could see increased revenues.  The economic effects would ripple throughout the economy.

Lifting the ban might relieve some of the pressure U.S. drillers now face.  With the biggest price decline in oil since the 1980s, rig count has fallen 52% from last year.  That cutback has led to a large reduction in energy-related jobs.  Just this year, 74,000 oil and gas jobs have been lost, with a much larger number of spin-off jobs lost in support industries.

Obama could alleviate this crisis by exerting leadership and working with Congress to lift the oil export ban.  By taking action, he would help create an estimated one million energy-related jobs, according to IHS Global.

Among experts, there is a consensus that lifting the ban on oil exports would also lower the cost of gasoline for U.S. consumers.  Even liberal economist Larry Summers argues that lifting the export ban “will actually reduce the price of gasoline.”  The total effect of an estimated annual savings of $90 per driver (based on an estimated 12-cent decline per gallon) would be $18 billion.  That money would flow immediately into discretionary spending.  And that’s on top of the much larger sum generated by increased drilling.  

The most important reason to lift the oil export ban is the strategic value of exporting a key commodity to our allies.  By reducing their dependence on producers in Russia and the Middle East, the U.S. could exert greater influence on global affairs.  There is little doubt that dependence on Russian and Middle Eastern energy supplies influences European policies.  Far better for the U.S. to provide our allies with a reliable supply of oil and gas, and thus increase the likelihood their support on policy issues.  At a time of growing international turmoil, it is crucial that the U.S. exercise as much influence as possible.

Increased U.S. production would also keep oil prices lower for longer.  The oil export ban is particularly short-sighted because it sets the U.S. up for another round of soaring prices.  When prices return to $100 a barrel, which may well occur in the absence of increased domestic production, U.S. consumers will have the Obama administration to blame.  Had the ban been lifted, U.S. exports would have helped to restrain price increases.  The simplest way to spur domestic oil production is to lift the export ban.

Unfortunately, as with everything pertaining to carbon fuel production, the Obama administration has chosen political expediency over intelligent policy.  The administration refuses to endorse lifting the export ban.  This leaves it to Congress, which is expected to take action beginning this fall.

Hopefully, a bill will make it to the president’s desk by early next year, and the president will allow the ban to be lifted.  A veto would send the message that the administration cares more about the small but wealthy environmentalist donor base than it does about the welfare of American workers and consumers.

With the benefits of more jobs, lower prices, and strategic influence, there is every reason to resume oil exports.  Unfortunately, Obama is still back in the seventies, right there with the environmentalists, feminists, and social activists who constitute his base.  It may be fun to watch John Travolta in reruns of Saturday Night Fever, but the nation’s energy policy should not be governed by the outdated assumptions of 40 years ago.  The U.S. oil and gas business is in crisis, one million workers are in need of high-paying jobs, and the nation’s economy is still in danger of stalling out.  It’s time to lift the export ban.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

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