Lawmakers Mull Lifting Longtime Ban on Oil Exports

A booming domestic energy sector raises questions about whether a decades-old ban still makes sense

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Kristoffer Tripplaar / Sipa / AP

Harold Hamm, chairman and CEO of Continental Resources testifies before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday.

Lawmakers debated ending a decades-old ban on exporting crude oil overseas on Thursday, revisiting a restriction enacted at the height of America’s oil worries and seen by some as outdated amid a domestic energy boom.

At a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, lawmakers and policy experts weighed the price stability of oil in the United States, job creation, and national security considerations relating to the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act. Created in response to the famous Middle East oil embargo and subsequent oil crisis in 1973, the law keeps all U.S. crude oil business within the country, while still allowing the export of refined oil and gases.

“We are witnessing an energy revolution,” said Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu. “That’s why we’re having this testimony today.”

Lawmakers and experts said improved technology, a weakened job market and the current “energy renaissance,” which includes a natural gas boom, are all reasons to reopen debate about lifting the ban and adding American crude oil to the global market. Congress remains fiercely divided over energy policy in general, making consensus on a legislative change difficult to reach. With modest aims, senators painted the hearing as just the start of a process.

“[This] is the beginning of many very considered and thoughtful discussions on what is a very timely issue,” said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowksi, the committee’s top Republican.

Harold Hamm, chairman and CEO of the petroleum company Continental Resources, said the law was born of oil scarcity fears that no longer exist.

“Experts… agree we will be energy independent in terms of crude oil within a decade or two,” said Hamm, a proponent for lifting the ban. “Through technological breakthroughs in precision horizontal drilling, we can develop resources previously thought to be unattainable.”

Opponents of lifting the ban conceded oil shortages are no longer the problem, but said prices could rise if the country begins exporting crude oil, to the detriment of American consumers.

“Any oil sent overseas must be replaced, which could raise prices,” said Daniel Weiss, the director of climate strategy at the liberal Center for American Progress. “Oil produced in the United States is significantly less vulnerable to supply disruptions and therefore provides more energy security.”

Opponents noted that the OPEC oil cartel, whose embargo sparked the 1973 energy crisis, still produces about 40 percent of the world’s crude oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“The global market is influenced by an oligopoly where OPEC countries control production in order to set prices,” said Graeme Burnett, senior vice president of Delta Air Lines, who predicted OPEC would lessen its crude oil supply if the U.S. entered a global market in order to maintain high prices.

But Amy Jaffe, the executive director of energy and sustainability at University of California, Davis, argued that lifting the ban would dilute OPEC’s market share and therefore its power over prices. Proponents for lifting the ban also said doing so could create domestic jobs.

“The energy sector has added jobs for millions of Americans—both directly and indirectly through energy service and equipment companies,” Hamm said. “Lifting export restrictions will strengthen our domestic oil industry, a critical component of our economy.”