End of the road for oil exports on highway bill

WASHINGTON — A bid by oil export advocates to tether the trade issue to a federal highway bill has hit a dead end.

Oil producers and their allies in Congress had hoped to use the highway bill as a vehicle for unrelated provisions lifting the 40-year-old ban on U.S. crude exports.

But the House Rules Committee opted not to make any oil export amendments in order during the chamber’s upcoming debate on that highway measure this week. Dozens of amendments were blessed by the committee, which will allow them to be considered for possible inclusion in the highway bill, but neither of two submitted oil export proposals made the cut.

The decision deals a blow to oil producers for which crude exports is a top priority. Current law allows exports of refined petroleum products, such as gasoline and diesel, but generally blocks raw, unprocessed U.S. crude from being sold to foreign buyers.

Business groups and conservative organizations had lobbied House Republicans to authorize broad oil exports as part of the highway bill.

Read more: Conservative coalition wants to see oil exports tied to highway bill

The decision by House Republican leaders to block the highway bill as an avenue for liberalizing crude trade closes off one of the last, best pathways for the change this year. The highway legislation is one of only a few remaining must-pass bills on track to get to the president’s desk before 2016.

For oil export supporters, the highway bill was especially attractive because the underlying legislation (and an attached reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank) are popular with Democrats. Adding oil exports to the highway bill could have defused a White House veto threat against the crude trade provisions and averted a straight up-or-down Senate vote on the issue.

Oil producers are eyeing other options and haven’t ruled out action next year, though the looming presidential election makes it politically challenging.

The Rules Committee foreclosed action on several other oil- and energy-related amendments proposed for the highway bill, including a measure to bar rail transport of some crude and a proposal to divert some royalties from oil production on federal lands to the federal Highway Trust Fund.

One amendment from Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., which would require federal-state consultation over railroad carriers’ oil spill response plans, is on track for consideration during the highway bill debate.

The rule for debate also left an opening for unspecified energy provisions authored by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., but those are unlikely to touch on oil exports.