Oil exports could mean more production — and pollution

An oil tanker navigates the Houston Ship Channel in Houston, Texas. (Carter Smith/ Bloomberg News file photo)
An oil tanker navigates the Houston Ship Channel in Houston, Texas. (Carter Smith/ Bloomberg News file photo)

WASHINGTON — If Congress or the Obama administration lifts the longstanding ban on crude exports, the resulting climb in oil production could unleash more than 515 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually — as much as 108 million passenger cars — according to an analysis released Friday.

The assessment from the liberal Center for American Progress is the first to broadly examine the environmental consequences of a big shift in U.S. oil trade policy, coming as Congress nears a vote on whether to lift the 1970s-era ban.

Related story: Democrat floats strategic crude exports

Environmentalists have been relatively quiet in the crude export debate — instead focusing most of their attention on the climate implications of liquefied natural gas exports — but there are signs that may be changing, presenting a new obstacle for oil companies eager to access world markets.

If lawmakers change oil trade laws, they should have their eyes wide open, said Matt Lee-Ashley, a co-author of the analysis and director of CAP’s public lands project.

Lifting the ban “might boost oil company profits, but it would also carry a high environmental price tag and create uncertainty for consumers,” Lee-Ashley said. “Congress should carefully weigh the full costs and risks of outsourcing American oil, including the likelihood of higher carbon pollution, more oil trains and tankers, and the loss of an area bigger than Arches National Park every year to drill rigs.”

Lee-Ashley and co-author Alison Cassady acknowledge that it is difficult to predict the full environmental costs of allowing more U.S. crude exports, partly because it is unclear how much the change would drive up domestic oil production and worldwide consumption of the fossil fuel. While some U.S. oil could merely displace crude from other parts of the world — particularly if OPEC cuts production to stabilize prices — any additional crude supplies that drive down world prices could encourage consumption to increase.

The CAP analysis uses data from three industry-commissioned studies of oil exports and relies heavily on a prediction that U.S. production could climb by 3.3 million barrels per day on average between 2015 and 2035. Using those numbers, CAP envisions these potential effects:

  • More greenhouse gas emissions: A 3.3 million barrel-per-day increase in oil production — and consumption — would result in more than 515 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, each time a barrel of crude is burned, it results in 0.43 metric tons of carbon dioxide or its equivalent.
  • More oil tanker traffic: If all 3.3 million barrels per day in extra crude were shipped to overseas markets, it would fill 947 tankers.
  • That increased production, if shipped domestically by train — even to U.S. ports and refineries — would fill more than 4,500 additional rail cars daily.

Lee-Ashley and Cassady assert that U.S. oil exports would likely mean more American crude running through foreign refineries in places with “weaker environmental safeguards.”

But oil export advocates argue that U.S. production is cleaner and safer — and held to a higher environmental standard than crude extracted in other countries.

“Support for lifting the ban on U.S. crude oil exports is building across the country as policymakers, think tanks, consumers and a host of other interested parties learn more about the benefits of modernizing our nation’s energy policy to reflect this new era of energy abundance,” said George Baker, executive director of Producers for American Crude Oil Exports. “However, with any public policy discussion, there are outliers, like the Center for American Progress, who reflexively reject policies which would stimulate the American economy and lower gasoline prices through greater energy development.”

The U.S. export ban bars most raw, unprocessed crude from being sold overseas. It doesn’t apply to refined petroleum products, such as gasoline or diesel, and there are exceptions for some Californian crude, oil extracted on Alaska’s North Slope and shipments to Canada. The Obama administration also just said it would authorize some oil exchanges with Mexico.

Related story: Obama administration OKs oil exports to Mexico

The Obama administration could move unilaterally to allow widespread oil exports. But Congress is moving to force the issue.

The House of Representatives is expected to vote this fall on legislation to lift the oil export ban, after House Speaker John Boehner’s July 29 declaration that he supports the change and after Republican leaders canvassed their GOP caucus for support.

And the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved similar legislation in July — setting up the possibility that the measure could be added to a broad energy package during possible floor debate later this year.