Policy: Environment & Energy

Chamber of Commerce to emphasize boosting energy trade in 2014

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Expanding oil and gas production, as well as removing export restrictions for fossil fuels, are among the top priorities for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce this year, CEO Tom Donohue said Wednesday.

Donohue credited the energy industry, led by the shale energy boom, with driving $284 billion in gross domestic product, nearly $75 billion in federal and state tax revenues and 2.1 million jobs in 2012.

He said that opening more federal offshore and onshore land to drilling and ending current restrictions on crude oil and liquefied natural gas exports would help facilitate more growth -- though the Obama administration contends drillers can access 75 percent of recoverable offshore reserves, and most of the nation's lucrative shale plays rest on state and private land.

Donohue added his name to the growing roster of people calling for an end to the U.S. ban on crude oil exports.

"I want to lift the ban," Donohue told reporters in Washington. "It's not going to happen overnight, but it's going to happen."

The debate has intensified in recent weeks on the heels of new federal statistics that show the nation will near a record by extracting 9.5 million barrels of oil per day by 2016. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz's comments last month that the 38-year-old policy might need revisiting fanned flames as well.

Currently, the Commerce Department can approve crude exports in some circumstances, as it already allows some to trickle to Canada.

Donohue's comments align with sentiments shared by Republicans -- Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on Tuesday called for lifting the ban -- and some centrist Democrats.

They also give opponents of the ban some lobbying heft, as Donohue's statement echoed remarks made Tuesday by American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard, who said he prefers a legislative fix to the issue rather than piecemeal changes by the Obama administration.

But some in the refining industry are hesitant to remove the ban.

Exports of refined petroleum products, which is still permitted, have benefited from the gusher of new oil. The U.S. trade deficit hit a four-year low in November, largely thanks to the value of fuel and petroleum product exports increasing from $105.7 billion in 2012 to $113.7 billion as imports dropped to $250.6 billion from $290.4 billion, according to the Financial Times.

Some Democratic lawmakers are likely to oppose ending the ban as well. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., on Tuesday pledged to produce a series of reports detailing the effects of lifting the ban.

Markey and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have warned that ending the export ban would maintain reliance on less-friendly nations for oil. They're also concerned doing so would facilitate more oil drilling, raising environmental concerns, and boost gas prices for some consumers, as supply gluts in some regions have depressed prices.

But those bottlenecks are exactly why the ban should end, some argue. They say that Gulf Coast refineries aren't equipped to handle the light, sweet crude that comes from shale plays.

"We need to take another look at those restrictions," Donohue said. "Obviously we want to use the energy at home first. But, you know, we don't restrict people from exporting airplanes that we make."

Donohue also said the Chamber would continue to push for faster federal approval of liquefied natural gas exports.

Federal law requires the Energy Department to determine whether such exports to nations that lack a free-trade agreement with the U.S. are in the national interest. It has approved five projects so far, but the Chamber, API and other groups are concerned the pace is too slow and that the window to take advantage of the global market is closing.

Some Democrats have urged caution on approvals, fearing that green-lighting too many export facilities could raise domestic prices.

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