Senators worried crude exports would send gas prices higher

WASHINGTON — Two powerful Senate Democrats want to know whether Americans will pay more at the pump if the government relaxes a decades-old ban on exporting U.S. crude.

Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington and Ron Wyden of Oregon asked the government’s Energy Information Administration to study the consumer impact of relaxing the 1970s-era restrictions.

In a letter Thursday, the senators asked EIA chief Adam Sieminski for the economic analysis, as well as an evaluation of how unlimited exports would affect U.S. oil production and consumption. On pricing, the senators want to see predictions of what refiners could pay for oil and how much motorists could end up paying for gasoline, diesel and other refined products under widespread crude exports.

Oil companies and their leading industry trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, have been pressing the Obama administration and Congress to lift the 39-year-old crude export ban.

While Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, unofficially kicked off the debate in Washington, D.C. with a Jan. 7 speech laying out the case for relaxing the ban, big changes are unlikely to happen with such a politically fraught issue in an election year.  Republicans and the oil industry are divided over the issue, with some inland refiners worried widespread exports would raise their crude costs.

Read more: Republicans divided on oil exports

So far, economic analysts have delivered mixed forecasts about how broad crude exports could affect domestic prices.

“American consumers and businesses need to know how any future decisions to export crude oil produced in the U.S. will affect the prices they pay at the pump,” said Wyden, the head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee,. “It’s important that everyone has the facts before such a major decision is made.”

Cantwell stressed her concerns about safety and price during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the issue last month. She is concerned about the prospect of more crude-carrying trains traveling through Washington state, following recent rail accidents.

Because the Pacific Northwest is a relatively isolated market, “we’ve had some of the highest gas prices in the nation,” Cantwell said. “How do we protect consumers in delivering the most cost-effective resources so that our economy can continue to grow?”

Wyden and Cantwell also want the energy agency to examine the likely routes for U.S. crude to flow out of the country. Pacific Northwest ports are a likely access route for oil extracted from the Bakken formation in North Dakota — with trains likely ferrying that crude west to Pacific ports.