Commerce Department Rulings Spur Oil Export Battle
As reported in our blog post of last week, the Commerce Department Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”) recently determined in two private classifications that lease condensate — a type of stabilized and distilled light crude oil — is not subject to the United States’ broad ban on crude oil exports. BIS has for years defined “crude oil” in its regulations as “a mixture of hydrocarbons that existed in liquid phase in underground reservoirs and remains liquid at atmospheric pressure after passing through surface separating facilities and which has not been processed through a crude oil distillation tower.” Although the regulations state that this definition includes lease condensate, BIS appears to have determined that lease condensate that has been distilled is a refined petroleum product that is not subject to the broad ban on crude oil exports from the United States.
While BIS claims that there has been “no change in policy on crude oil exports,” the recent determinations have spurred the debate over whether the U.S. should change its position on crude oil exports. In particular, Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) — who have been vocal opponents of lifting the ban on crude oil exports — wrote a letter to Commerce Secretary Priztker alleging that BIS may have impermissibly approved the exports of lease condensate and demanding copies of the two determinations and information on the legal rationale for approving such exports by July 14, 2014. Senators Markey and Menendez argue that allowing exports of crude oil would increase reliance on foreign oil and cause domestic gas prices to rise. However, with U.S. crude oil production surging as a result of the advancements in hydrofracking technology, Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mary Landrieu have championed the effort to reconsider the ban on crude oil exports, which has been in place since the Arab oil embargo and global energy supply shortages of the 1970s. In particular, Senator Murkowski has issued a report calling for a “renovation” of U.S. energy export policy, which includes an April 2014 white paper in advocating for condensate exports.
While some view BIS’ approval of condensate exports as a step towards a greater liberalization in crude oil export policy, financial analysts such as Morgan Stanley are not bullish on any significant changes occurring before this years’ mid-term elections. Moreover, recent reports indicate that the White House may not have been aware that BIS was planning to issue such determinations, and therefore this may not represent a conscious effort on the part of the Obama Administration to change crude oil export policy. Indeed, Secretary Pritzker has confirmed publicly that the rulings were not a change in policy. However, the Secretary also said that “it’s a mistake to think there isn’t serious conversation going on within the administration about what we should do,” and that the issue of energy exports overall should be “examined holistically from an economic, strategic, and diplomatic standpoint.” These statements suggest that the Administration is not backing down from the condensate rulings, and is considering the broader policy issues involved in allowing exports of other oil products.