Oil Exports Could Become New Hurdle For Obama's Trade Deal

Lisa Murkowski will debut a bill lifting the oil export ban next week.

Get ready for the possibility of another controversial political ingredient entering the debate over trade legislation: the oil export ban.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski will introduce legislation to end the oil export ban next week, and suggested it could move as an amendment to the upcoming trade bill.

Murkowski has long been a vocal advocate of lifting the ban. But the standalone bill will mark the start of an intensified push by the chairman to fundamentally alter the decades-old policy barring the sale of most U.S. oil abroad.

Laying out her thinking during a meeting with reporters, Murkowski said she believes the export bill could advance on its own, as an amendment to another piece of legislation such as the so-called "fast-track" deal that would grant Congress an up-or-down vote on international trade agreements negotiated by the White House, or as part of a broader energy package that the Senate panel is currently working to formulate.

"We will be taking up the trade promotion issue theoretically next week. When you talk about oil exports, that's certainly in the realm of trade," Murkowski said, noting that bringing up the issue during the trade debate would create "a great talking opportunity at a minimum."

"I'm going to be looking for every opportunity where we might have to advance it," Murkowski said, though she also conceded that, "there may not be any opportunity for amendment on the trade bill."

If Murkowski ties legislation ending the export ban to the "fast-track" bill, which faces intense opposition from many Democrats, it could make the push to pass trade promotion authority even more contentious.

Democrats, labor, and environmental groups strongly oppose the trade legislation, saying it would pave the way for Obama to finalize a trade deal that will hurt American workers and the environment.

The politics of lifting the export ban also are tricky. The issue has divided Republicans in the past, and many senators are wary of lifting the ban for fear that it could cause gasoline prices to spike. A spate of recently-released studies, including research from the nonpartisan advocacy group Resources for the Future, suggest that lifting the would actually cause gas prices to go down.

Supporters of exports also make the case that lifting the ban would bolster national security.

During Senate debate over Iran sanctions last month, Murkowski introduced an amendment to lift the ban. The amendment did not come to a vote, however.

Calls from the oil industry to lift the ban also have grown louder in recent months.

"Today there are a few public policy changes that will bring as much economic value to our domestic economy, then lifting the ban on crude exports," American Petroleum Institute president Jack Gerard said during a call with reporters on Wednesday.

It is unclear how many Democrats would sign on to the push to lift the ban. A number of high-profile Democrats, most prominently Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, strongly oppose lifting the ban.

Exports also have opened up a rift within the oil industry. Major oil companies, including ConocoPhillips, support lifting the ban, but the issue has faced pushback from some oil refiners.

"If Sen. Murkowski hopes to pass her energy bill, it would be wise to not make exports part of the package. Senators are going to be less likely to vote for it if that's in it—they don't want to risk being blamed for gas price increases," said Jay Hauck, a spokesman for CRUDE, a coalition of oil refiners opposed to lifting the ban.

An attempt by Republican senator and 2016 contender Ted Cruz to pass an amendment lifting the ban during debate over the Keystone XL pipeline in January ruffled feathers among export advocates who believed the issue was not yet ripe and feared that bringing any amendment to a vote would result in failure.