WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama faces a challenge in his second term that was unthinkable a few years ago: how to adapt an energy policy focused on oil imports and scarcity to an era of rapidly growing domestic production.
After decades when the concept of energy independence seemed a pipe dream, the river of oil flowing from shale formations in North Dakota and Texas is reshaping U.S. energy policy. With oil and gas output increasing, the United States is quickly entering an era where it will have to decide how to manage its newfound energy wealth.
While the debate over liquefied natural gas exports is well known, another issue is emerging: whether to allow the export of crude oil.
A 37-year-old law imposed after the Arab oil embargo effectively bans all but a handful of specific shipments. Yet the president has the power to allow exports in instances deemed to be in the country's interest, placing Obama squarely in the middle of this policy quandary.
The light, sweet crude coming from the nation's shale formations is not well suited for the U.S. Gulf Coast refining hub - a disconnect that makes it more profitable for oil companies to send oil abroad and import crude that is better matched to Gulf refiners.
The shifting dynamics could force the Obama administration, which spent the months prior to the election boasting about America's increasing oil supplies, to at least examine whether the door should be opened to more crude oil exports.
While allowing more exports might help companies' bottom lines, it could be a tough sell, as some lawmakers have already called for restricting other energy exports.
Critics of such exports argue that U.S. resources should be used at home to keep prices down for consumers.
With the United States still a net importer of crude oil and public angst over gasoline prices ever-present, the prospect of tankers laden with U.S.-produced crude oil destined for Europe and points beyond will almost certainly draw potent opposition.
At least one lawmaker is already looking into current crude oil export applications. U.S. Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and vocal critic of U.S. energy exports, recently asked the Commerce Department to turn over information about all crude oil export applications for further study.
"The politics of this are very hard to change," said Kevin Book, an analyst at ClearView Energy Partners. "They're a part of our national character and have been ever since (former President) Jimmy Carter donned a cardigan."
INDUSTRY LOBBYING ON THE WAY
Despite the tricky political implications, energy companies are soon likely to clamor for change. They point to a growing surplus of the prized light, sweet crude that is most commonly produced from shale reservoirs, which they say would fetch a higher price on global markets.
In turn, Gulf Coast refiners that invested billions of dollars in sophisticated refining equipment, much of which is now idle, could buy more of the cheaper, heavy imported oil the equipment was meant to process.
Refineries on the U.S. East Coast are better suited for lighter crudes, but there is no pipeline system to transport oil there from the Bakken or Eagle Ford shale formations.
"There's going to be an industry lobbying effort to change the law," said Guy Caruso, former head of the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
"We could see some move in that direction as soon as next year," said Caruso, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Obama administration has not officially weighed in on the crude oil exports issue. At least one administration appointee has said the United States should be open to exports, however.
Adam Sieminski, the head of the Energy Information Administration, which does not advocate policy, said crude oil exports could benefit the U.S. economy.
The pressure is building. This year, BP (BP.L) won approval for limited shipments to Canada, a trade that has been generally allowed for years if the crude is then re-imported after refining or consumed in Canada. But the bigger opportunity may be shipments from the Gulf Coast to markets farther afield.
LAW DATES TO ARAB OIL EMBARGO ERA
The main law governing U.S. crude oil exports is the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act.
Passed in the aftermath of the Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s, the law requires the president to restrict trade of domestically produced crude oil outside the country. Only a handful of other commodities are similarly regulated, including such things as unprocessed Western red cedar and horses exported by sea.
While companies can easily export crude oil products, such as gasoline and diesel, sending unrefined crude oil out of the country requires a license from the Bureau of Industry and Security in the Commerce Department.
Unlike other policy areas that require legislative action to change, the president is able to expand crude oil exports when a finding is made that doing so is in the country's best interest.
President Ronald Reagan made such findings in 1985 and 1988 to permit exports to Canada, as well as the finding in 1985 that allowed exports from Alaska's Cook Inlet. In 1992, President George Bush approved the limited export of heavy crude oil from California after environmental laws in the state greatly reduced demand domestically.
In both cases, these exceptions were made for crude oil production that was relatively cut off from the rest of the nation and in which access to foreign markets was necessary to support the output.
Exports are also allowed in some cases where the crude is part of a swap that will result in an equal amount of petroleum products being imported into the United States. In these cases, companies have to prove the crude oil could not have been reasonably marketed domestically.
Former Commerce Department officials said crude oil applications have typically made up only a small part of the export bureau's work.
"I don't think these laws existed at any time we've had an oil surplus," said Bill Reinsch, who was Undersecretary for the Export Administration at the Commerce Department in the 1990s under President Bill Clinton.
"They were designed to deal with when we have an oil deficit. We still do, but it's not the same," said Reinsch, who is now president of the National Foreign Trade Council.
TEST CASE IN NATURAL GAS INDUSTRY
Oil and gas companies already face resistance as they push the government to allow more exports of natural gas.
U.S. shale gas output has also skyrocketed in recent years. The United States is positioned to be a net exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the next few years if the federal government approves more export projects.
After signing off on Cheniere's (LNG.A) Sabine Pass export project, the Obama administration has repeatedly postponed decisions on further exports as it awaits a comprehensive economic analysis of the effects of exports.
Lawmakers and some manufacturers have also raised concerns about whether gas exports will raise prices and harm consumers.
"Investors need to prepare themselves for the idea that what happened with LNG will happen with crude, and it will happen faster and bigger, too," Book said.
(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; editing by Ros Krasny and Douglas Royalty)