WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. ban on exporting most domestic crude oil became one of the defining energy policy issues of 2014, as months of heavy lobbying concluded with the Obama administration opening the door to shipments of certain ultra-light oil.
About one year after the Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz first raised the four-decade-old ban as an item for discussion, the Department of Commerce on Dec. 30 took steps toward allowing export of the oil. It approved some of more than 20 pending requests to export processed ultra-light oil and issued the clearest definitions yet of what companies may export.
The action, which follows months of growing pressure from energy companies and lawmakers, is expected to lead to a wave of exports of the ultra-light oil, also known as condensate. But it will not be enough to reduce a glut of shale oil expected along the U.S. Gulf Coast in coming years that energy interests say will eventually choke the drilling boom.
Congress passed the export ban after the 1970s Arab oil embargo led to snaking lines at gas stations and fears of a global energy shortage. Only Congress can fully lift the ban, a action not expected to happen soon. But the administration could take steps next year to relax it.
Here are some key events over the last 13 months in the push to relax the ban:
December (2013) - Moniz tells a Platts conference in New York the domestic drilling boom means it may be time to review the export ban as energy issues deserve “some new analysis and examination in the context of what is now an energy world that is no longer like the 1970s.”
January - Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, kicks off a year of lobbying against the ban, urging President Barack Obama to lift it and issuing a report saying an end to the ban would create jobs and keep oil output growing at record levels.
February - Research group Resources for the Future issues a report concluding gasoline prices would fall 2 to 7 cents per gallon if exports were allowed. It is the first report in a string of studies, fully or partially supported by the energy industry, that reached similar conclusions.
March - A Reuters/IPSOS poll finds 71 percent of Americans oppose crude oil exports if they raise the price of gasoline, up from 67 percent in November 2013.
March - Four independent U.S. refiners including PBF Energy Inc and Alon USA Energy Inc launch the first major lobbying effort to oppose lifting the export ban, which has benefited them by keeping domestic crude cheap.
March - The U.S. Bureau of Industry and Security, the arm of the Department of Commerce that oversees export regulations, privately issues so-called commodity classification notices, or CCATs, to Pioneer Natural Resources Co and Enterprise Products Partners LP. The rulings, which did not become publicly known until months later, give permission under existing law for the companies to export processed condensate.
May - John Podesta, an adviser to President Barack Obama, says the administration is taking an “active look at what the production looks like, particularly in the Eagle Ford in Texas,” and whether refiners could absorb that oil, at a conference at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.
May - Reuters reports that oil companies including Pioneer held talks with the Department of Commerce and were hopeful that the Obama administration would allow some exports of condensate.
June - Pioneer and Enterprise publicly confirm that the Commerce Department had given them CCATs in the spring to export condensate processed in a distillation tower.
July - The first condensate cargo for export loads in Texas. Westport Petroleum Inc, a U.S. based arm of Japanese trader Mitsui & Co, chartered the BW Zambesi, with a capacity of 76,000 dead weigh tons.
July - Reuters reports the Commerce Department has put an indefinite hold on requests for permission to export processed condensate, stalling an industry push to ship a glut of oil from the drilling boom. The hold would not be lifted until late December.
September - Reuters reports that foreign trade partners Mexico, South Korea, and the EU put pressure on Washington to ease the crude export ban.
September - The oil tanker Polar Discovery, loaded with Alaskan crude - which is exempt from the export ban - sets sail for South Korea, the first such shipment in more than a decade.
November - Reuters reports that the first commodity classification notice to export processed condensate had actually been granted to Peaker Energy in 2013. The small firm was not believed to have exported any oil.
November - BHP Billiton Ltd [BHP.AX] strikes a deal to sell a cargo of processed U.S. condensate without having first received a formal ruling from the Commerce Department, becoming the first company to “self-classify” the oil and thus test the limits of the ban.
December - The Department of Commerce breaks months of silence and takes two steps to open up processed condensate exports: it begins approving “some” of the pending CCAT requests to export processed condensate; and it issues the first formal guidelines and definitions for what constitutes exportable crude oil, including clarifying the degree of distillation required.
For a FACTBOX on the FAQ:
Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Steve Orlofsky