(Adds link to Senate report in paragraph four. John Kemp is a
Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own)
By John Kemp
LONDON, March 3 The White House could lift the
ban on U.S. oil exports in stages, according to an analysis of
past presidential decisions prepared for Senator Lisa Murkowski,
the highest-ranking Republican on the Energy and Natural
"The executive branch retains the statutory authority to
authorise crude oil exports," according to the report released
in Washington on Monday ("Past is precedent: executive authority
to authorise crude oil exports" March 3).
"Even statutes that generally prohibit the export of crude
oil contain provisions that permit the president to authorise
exports under certain conditions," it concluded.
The full report is available on the committee's website: link.reuters.com/nar37v.
Easing export restrictions, rather than trying to lift the
ban altogether, would have several important advantages.
The president could act alone without needing fresh
legislation from a sharply divided Congress.
The White House could postpone or perhaps avoid altogether a
confrontation over oil exports with its core supporters in the
The ban could be lifted in stages as and when the glut of
particular crudes depresses their prices and threatens to limit
And phased permission to export would provide more time to
build a domestic consensus behind exporting, and test whether
exports would raise pump prices for gasoline and home heating
On six occasions since 1981, the president has lifted some
of the restrictions on the export of crude oil and refined
products originally imposed during the energy crisis of the
Presidential decisions have lifted controls on the export of
refined products (1981), crude to Canada (1985 and 1988), oil
from Alaska's Cook Inlet (1985), California heavy crude (1992)
and Alaska North Slope oil (1996).
In five instances, the president acted alone, without
Congress, utilising the discretionary authority conferred on him
by the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) and the
1979 Export Administration Act (EAA) as well as a number of
In each case, the president or the secretary of commerce
determined exports were in the U.S. national interest, would not
diminish the quantity of petroleum available in the United
States, and were consistent with the purpose of EPCA and the
The findings of the staff report mirror my own analysis last
year that the president has sufficient authority to lift or
modify the ban on his own without needing fresh legislation
("Obama could lift U.S. oil export ban without Congress" Dec
Murkowski, who has shown real leadership on this issue, has
already stated she believes the administration "retains enough
statutory authority to lift the ban on its own" in a speech she
gave at the start of the year.
But if the administration was unwilling to go it alone, or
concluded it needed more authority, she promised she would be
prepared to introduce "small, targeted bills" to modernise the
law ("A signal to the world: renovating the architecture of U.S.
energy exports" Jan 7).
The real problems are political rather than legal.
The White House owes oil producers few favours after they
heavily backed his challenger, Mitt Romney, in the 2012 election
and campaigned against him in swing states through the "Vote 4
By contrast, environmental groups have been among the most
enthusiastic and consistent supporters of the president and many
congressional Democrats, and they are mostly hostile to oil
Lifting the ban with the support of congressional
Republicans like Murkowski but in the teeth of opposition from
his own party and environmentalists would pose risks for the
president and few political benefits.
But there is a groundswell of opinion in Washington in
favour of allowing at least some oil exports to sustain the
shale boom and maximise the country's geopolitical influence.
The turmoil in Ukraine, a key transit route for Russia's gas
exports, underscores the importance of exporting U.S. oil and
gas to protect allies and project American influence in the
Lifting the ban gradually, in response to demonstrated
evidence that it is hurting oil production, would enable the
president to chart a middle course that minimises opposition,
and is the most likely outcome in the next two years.
(Editing by William Hardy and Dale Hudson)