New congressional caucus aims to boost refiners

WASHINGTON — Refiners fighting against biofuel mandates, environmental regulations and changes in U.S. export policy  have new allies on Capitol Hill, with the launch Wednesday of a formal congressional caucus dedicated to the industry.

So far, 25 lawmakers have joined the Congressional Refinery Caucus, formed to highlight the critical  role of the facilities that transform crude oil into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other products.

Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, the co-chairman, said the group is needed to shine a light on a part of the oil industry that is mysterious to many policymakers.

“Refineries are part of the process little understood and mostly a mystery,” Olson said, even among people who grasp the basics of drilling and pipelines.

In an opinion piece describing the new group, Olson and co-founder Cedric Richmond, D-La., said the oil and gas space “has been painted with a broad brush.”

“As crucial as upstream operations and midstream pipeline assets are to our districts, refineries remain an integral part of the equation,” the pair wrote. “Refineries are critically important to this country, and we believe our caucus will serve as an important educational tool to help achieve the right energy policy for America.”

The group now becomes one of hundreds of congressional caucuses formally recognized on Capitol Hill and dedicated to an array of issues, from port security and shipbuilding to neuroscience and animal protection.

Some caucuses are little more than titles, seldom taking substantive action.

But Olson and Richmond have bigger ambitions, including holding briefings on policy issues involving the refining sector and organizing tours of the massive installations.

Stephen Brown, vice president of federal government affairs for San Antonio-based refiner Tesoro, said the industry is “looking at the caucus primarily as a bipartisan information sharing forum rather than an advocacy platform.”

And Brendan Williams, senior vice president of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, said the group could help deepen lawmakers’ knowledge about a part of the oil industry that is not as well understood as upstream oil and gas exploration.

“One of our challenges is that a lot of people on the Hill really understand the upstream issues,” Williams said. “They don’t necessarily understand the downstream and the refining issues as much, particularly folks who don’t have refining in their district.”

The caucus will provide a venue to focus on how policy issues will affect both fuel and petrochemical manufacturing, Williams said. “It’s critically important as we’re on the verge of a petrochemical renaissance given the oil boom.”

A number of major political and policy debates in Washington could have a big effect on the sector, including discussions about whether to ease a longstanding ban on exporting most unprocessed crude. While some refiners and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturer say they support free markets, others are lobbying actively against a change in export limitation.

Most members of the group count at least one refinery in or near their congressional districts. Besides Olson, Texas representatives on the roster are Democrats Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Gene Green of Houston, and Republicans  John Culberson of Houston,  Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi,  Randy Neugebauer of Lubbock, Steve Stockman of Clear Lake and Randy Weber of Friendswood.