Leaving the United States' ban on crude oil exports intact could eventually stall domestic production, the International Energy Agency said Tuesday.
Although U.S. production is booming -- it rose 15 percent last year, the largest year-over-year gain by any country in two decades -- the regulatory roadblocks to sending unrefined crude overseas could suppress drilling, according to a Wall Street Journal story that cited IEA's monthly oil market report.
"The growing volumes of light tight oil that cannot leave North America are increasingly posing a challenge to industry, putting the spotlight on the U.S. crude oil export ban," the IEA said.
The report comes as the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee plans to tackle the export issue at a Jan. 30 hearing, the first salvo in a hot topic that's grabbed the attention of both chambers.
Currently, the Commerce Department allows a trickle of crude exports into Canada. But for the most part, the only way oil gets out of the country is as refined products, such as gasoline, jet fuel and propane.
That business is booming, which has led some refiners to resist lifting the ban. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are keen to hold onto the specter of energy independence, noting that despite increased production — the IEA estimates output will rise 780,000 barrels per day this year — the U.S. imports roughly 40 percent of its oil.
Still, some lawmakers and industry groups are pushing to loosen export restrictions. They say blocking exports creates bottlenecks that prevent oil from fetching the highest possible price, in turn discouraging drilling.
"There will come a time, however, when we will have an unsustainable supply of this light crude. It may be next year, it may be sooner than that -- it may be a matter of months. The free market works wonders, but it can't work magic here," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the top Republican on the energy committee, said earlier this month at a Washington speech advocating relaxing crude oil exports.
The IEA tended to agree with Murkowski, noting, "Although there appears to be room in the market to accommodate further supply expansion in 2014 without any immediate change in export regulations, how long this can continue is open to debate."