Should the U.S. Get in the Crude Oil Export Business?

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Jan. 9 2014 2:56 PM

Should the U.S. Get in the Crude Oil Export Business?

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Oil pumps operate near central Los Angeles. Their yield may soon be heading to Europe.

Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski called for lifting the 40-year-old ban on U.S. crude oil exports. With some notable exceptions—oil sent to Canada, mostly—the U.S. is currently barred from exporting oil that hasn’t been refined into gasoline or diesel to other countries. The regulation has been in place since the oil shocks of the 1970s, when it was enacted to preserve domestic supplies and insulate the U.S. from international disruptions.

Obviously, the global energy picture has changed dramatically since then, with China having overtaken the U.S. as the world’s largest oil importer. U.S. crude imports peaked in 2005 amid both rising U.S. production from new sources and a sluggish domestic demand.

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Oil companies, and politicians from oil-producing states like Murkowski, support lifting the ban, arguing that it would spur greater demand and boost production. The case against lifting the ban is both environmental—it could lead to more U.S. drilling and emissions—and economic: It could lead to higher gas prices.

Michael Levi, an expert on energy security and climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the security implications of such a move would be minor. “The United States is vulnerable to oil supply disruptions that drive up prices and hurt the economy as a result," he told Slate. “That’s true whether or not we export some oil."

According to Levi, the political ramifications may be seen more in terms of future trade negotiations. China, for instance, has been criticized in recent years for restricting exports of strategic resources such as rare earth metals. Opening up its own resources to export gives the U.S. more rhetorical ammunition to attack such practices.

Outside the U.S., the big winners of lifting the ban might be European countries, where refineries —many of them decades old—have been shutting down in the face of competition from newer facilities in the Middle East and Asia and the high volumes of refined petroleum products being exported from the United States. U.S. refiners, many of whom have turned a tidy profit with the U.S. unable to export crude, have more mixed feelings about the idea.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. Follow him on Twitter.