Oil export backers plan to use highway bill as vehicle

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 — Lawmakers seeking to repeal the longstanding U.S. ban on exporting crude are eyeing a federal highway bill as a vehicle to lift the oil-trade restrictions.

Two oil export amendments have been teed up for possible consideration when the House of Representatives next week takes up legislation that would reauthorize federal highway and transit programs for six years.

The highway bill is seen as one of just a few must-pass measures on Congress’ agenda this year, making it a prime candidate for unrelated provisions, like the crude exports proposals. The highway bill also is a top priority for lawmakers, as it funds major infrastructure and transportation projects nationwide.

The Senate has already passed its own long-term highway bill without an oil export provision. If the House voted to add language authorizing widespread oil exports, the issue would be negotiated by a joint House-Senate conference committee made up of Democrats and Republicans from both chambers.

The tactic has major political benefits — if export language is added to the House transportation bill and then survives a conference committee, the Senate would never take a vote solely on the issue. Instead, the chamber would be presented with the final compromise transportation bill — in the form of a conference report — and asked to vote the whole thing up or down.

The strategy also could make it more difficult for President Barack Obama to go through with a threatened veto of oil exports legislation. The House passed legislation lifting the oil export ban earlier this month, but supporters fell 29 votes shy of the 290 they need to override the veto that White House advisers said they would recommend.

George Baker, executive director of Producers for American Crude Oil Exports, a group of independent oil producers pushing for the change, said “the highway bill is the perfect vehicle to finally make this a reality.”

“Procedurally, we think, as do many members with whom we’ve spoken over the past week, it makes perfect sense to attach crude oil exports to the highway bill which will enable the U.S. to maintain and expand vital infrastructure,” Baker said. “Lifting the ban this year is critically important to workers and communities across the country who rely on a healthy energy economy to make ends meet.”

One proposed amendment, offered by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, would repeal the oil export provisions in the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act. A separate proposal, offered by Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, is more expansive, repealing a slew of restrictions on oil exports (including policies that bar crude extracted on the United States’ outer continental shelf from being sold to foreign buyers).

Both of the proposals claim to raise revenue, making them valuable as a potential way to pay for some transportation programs in the highway bill.

The two crude export amendments are among dozens that have been presented to the House Rules Committee, which will decide which proposals can be offered on the floor during the highway bill debate.

The underlying highway legislation is also likely to be the vehicle for another unrelated provision — a re-authorization of the Export-Import Bank. Although the House passed a separate measure reauthorizing the institution already, that stand-alone bill is not likely to be taken up by the Senate.