A bill lifting the federal ban on exporting crude oil, long in search of a legislative home, may end up attached to comprehensive energy legislation, at once giving it new life and risking the fate of a carefully-crafted mega-bill over an issue most Democrats and some Republicans oppose.
The decision to merge the two bills rests with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R–Alaska), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. ENR has labored all year to craft the first comprehensive energy bill since 2007, and Murkowski, who has stressed the need to leave more controversial items off the table to ensure safe passage, had been pushing a separate bill to authorize the export of all crude oil and condensate (S. 1312).
But in a hearing today, the controversial export bill was considered for inclusion in ENR’s bigger energy bill.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D–Wash.), the top Democrat on the energy panel, called that concerning.
“I’m not sure where [Murkowski] is going to put it, but we’ve got to get a package that we know people will support,” she said in an interview. “I’m very concerned about the price on consumers,” Cantwell added. Some observers say exporting oil could raise gas prices in the U.S.
Murkowski cited a report she said proved oil exports to be a net plus for the American economy by spurring job creation and revenue, but Cantwell said the report offered little about how consumers would fare at the pump.
“The information we have thus far is inconclusive to how lifting the ban on oil exports may impact consumers,” Cantwell’s statement reads.
Other ENR members voiced similar anxieties. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said: “My bigger concern is about making sure we’re not raising prices on American consumers…I need to be satisfied that whatever we do in that area does not raise prices,” she said.
When asked if the oil export could prove detrimental to the committee’s work on the larger energy bill, Sen. Angus King, (I-Maine) said simply, “I think there’s a lot to be discussed, I’ll leave it at that.”
Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Murkowski, said in an email that “…she’s not made that decision yet, she’s keeping her options open.”
Morning Consult reported last month that Murkowski would pursue the oil export issue outside of ENR’s work on a broad-stroke energy package. “It’s not going to benefit me to try to move a measure that has no bipartisan support,” she said. “We might be able to move it through committee, but if I can’t actually move it through the floor, that’s a lot of work for no gain,” Murkowski told reporters in May.
Introduced May 12, the bill has since struggled to find a home. Murkowski said then it might move as a standalone, or as an amendment to either trade legislation or the Iran nuclear deal. But she did not rule out the possibility of pushing it through as part of the comprehensive energy bill.
While the oil export bill was brought up as an amendment to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, it was ultimately set aside and did not come to a vote. It did not come up during the Senate’s debate over trade promotion authority, either.
That leaves ENR’s comprehensive energy bill among the most likely venues remaining to address the issue.
Lifting the 1970s-era ban on oil exports is among the most divisive energy challenges facing Congress, and a handful of efforts are already underway in both chambers to tackle the challenge. In addition to Murkowski’s bill, a measure (S. 1372) championed by Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.), and Republican Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), is currently sitting before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. The House has a similar bill (H.R. 702), but it has so far only attracted one Democratic co-sponsor, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas).
Meanwhile, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the majority whip, is currently pushing an amendment to a Defense Department authorization bill that would allow for oil exports to U.S. allies when certain conditions are met. A competing amendment from Sen. Ed Markey (D–Mass.) would assert that oil exports should only be allowed when they do not increase gas prices or U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Both could serve as barometers for measuring support for oil exports in the Senate.