In the wake of a historic agreement at this month’s Paris Climate Change Conference, the United States is expected to take the significantly regressive step of lifting a 40-year ban on crude oil exports, and the Northwest will find itself directly in the path of the oil industry’s plans to dramatically increase crude oil production for overseas export.
Since 1975, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act has banned the export of domestic crude oil supplies, with some exemptions for certain classifications of oil products. Congress passed the act after an oil embargo by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) against the US, Canada, and three other nations caused the per-barrel price of oil to quadruple between October 1973 and March of the following year. In pursuit of energy independence for the US, the act created petroleum reserves, extended oil price controls, and mandated fuel economy standards.
In recent years, oil industry lobbyists like the American Petroleum Institute have been aggressively chipping away at the oil export ban. Consistent lobbying efforts targeted the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), which has quietly granted crude oil export exemptions to select oil companies through rulings not disclosed to the public.
In February, the environmental law firm Earthjustice filed a formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on behalf of Sightline, asking the BIS to release information about its deals with oil exporters. In order to keep those exemptions secret, the Bureau invoked the Export Administration Act of 1979, which allows for the withholding of certain types of export licensing information. That regulation lapsed in 2001, but George W. Bush renewed it by executive order, and it has been renewed annually since that time.
Our FOIA request was met with silence, so in June we sued the Obama Administration. We then received some documents in late July and mid-October of 2015. The documents indicate that the Bureau was reviewing reports prepared by the oil industry, and redacted emails suggest meetings with oil industry officials. The documents also note that the Bureau’s 2014 decisions, including new commodity codes affecting how petroleum products are classified, would notably increase exports of condensate (condensate is a lightweight grade of oil that the industry has worked hard to exempt from the ban).
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A March 2014 poll by Reuters found that nearly 60 percent of Americans support the restriction on oil exports. That number increases to 72 percent when the restriction protects US gas prices. Yet now it seems that the Bureau will no longer need to issue secret exemptions to the ban because the Obama administration and Congress are preparing to lift the ban entirely as part of a budget deal announced yesterday evening.
Lifting the ban will increase crude oil exports with steep costs to average Americans, including loss of public lands to large-scale drilling, increased carbon pollution in our already struggling climate, and greater numbers of dangerous oil trains moving through our communities. And if the oil industry can bypass domestic refineries, the move may also threaten the livelihoods of the union workers who currently process America’s crude oil into useable consumer products.
For some regions of the country, including the Gulf Coast and the Pacific Northwest, it could mean an even larger flood of crude oil moved by train or pipeline, increasing the risks of local fires and spills. The Pacific Northwest has become a target for fossil fuel projects, including oil, coal, and fracked natural gas, primarily because it is cheaper to ship to Asia from the Northwest than from other regions.
If the oil export ban is lifted, it will become even more important for the Northwest to stand strong against the oil industry as the Thin Green Line.