Chamber of Commerce pushing moderate Democrats to back oil exports

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. heads to a closed-door briefing by national security officials on the situation in Syria, Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 6, 2013. Bennet was among a group of senators targeted in an ad campaign by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supporting crude oil exports. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — The Chamber of Commerce is highlighting the potential economic benefits of allowing widespread oil exports as it pushes a handful of senators to support expanded crude trade.

The business group is running digital ads in five states to keep the pressure on senators viewed as potentially voting to lift the 40-year-old ban on U.S. oil exports. The ads, officially launched by the Chamber’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, emphasize the economics of the issue by highlighting the potential jobs that could be gained in each state “if we lift the ban on oil exports.”

The campaign follows a Chamber-sponsored radio blitz on oil exports during August, when a congressional recess meant many lawmakers were in their home states, holding town halls and meeting with constituents.

Karen Harbert, head of the Institute for 21st Century Energy, said the campaign is focusing on states with some moderate Democrats, where local engagement by voters is seen as critical. The goal is to “pump up the volume” on crude exports in some of the states, Harbert said.

The new ads target Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Cory Gardner; Indiana Republican Daniel Coats and Democrat Joe Donnelly; Montana Republican Steve Daines and Democrat Jon Tester; New Mexico Democrats Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall; and Virginia Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner.

Users who click on the images are directed to an online petition drive to “end the outdated ban on oil exports.”

Winning the authority to widely export crude is a top priority for oil producers who say the current ban restrains domestic production by keeping them from fetching oft-higher international prices for the fossil fuel.

Oil export advocates have used an array of arguments to make their case for the change and frequently have touted expanded crude trade as a geopolitical tool the United States can use to help its allies and weaken enemies around the world.

Fairness arguments have been advanced as well. Oil producers say the change would put them on the same footing as refiners who can now freely export refined petroleum products such as gasoline and diesel even though unprocessed, raw crude is generally barred from such foreign trade.

Oil export backers in Congress, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, also have highlighted the nuclear deal that lifts sanctions against selling Iranian crude, despite the U.S. restrictions.

The chamber pressed that Iran message in August.

But now, Harbert said, “we’re pivoting to (the idea) that this is good policy and good economics.”

Export supporters had hoped to put legislation lifting the ban onto an unrelated highway bill moving through the House of Representatives this week, in hopes that would be enough to overcome a threatened presidential veto and avoid a potentially tough Senate vote on the trade question.

But Republican leaders in the House opted to foreclose that option.

Read more: End of the road for oil exports on highway bill

That leaves oil producers and their Capitol Hill allies with few clear options for advancing the legislation this year, amid a tight congressional calendar.

The looming presidential election makes the politics tricker in 2016, but Harbert said change is still possible.

In a new year, “you have to start the momentum machine again,” and there are even fewer legislative vehicles on which crude exports could hitch a ride.

But, Harbert stressed, “this issue has really mature very, very quickly, and I think all of the arguments against it have dissolved under their own weight. We’ve got momentum at our back.”