House Democrats Keep Door Open to Crude Exports, Seek Sweeteners

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House Democrats said a measure to repeal decades-old U.S. restrictions on crude oil exports needs more environmental and consumer protections to win their backing.

The Republican-led House Energy and Commerce Committee passed the measure by a 31-19 vote Thursday, sending the legislation to the full House of Representatives. Three Democrats joined 28 Republicans voting in favor.

A floor vote could come as soon as the end of the month. The bill cleared the committee with one amendment, which would allow the U.S. president to reimpose export restrictions during a national emergency.

“I frankly don’t see what’s in this for the average American,” Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the panel’s Democratic leader, said before the vote. The bill “is a blunt object which broadly undermines 40 years of protections for national security, our economy, consumers and the environment.”

U.S. exports of most crude oil were banned by Congress in the 1970s during the Arab oil embargo. In the past few years, a surge in production has seen the U.S. become the world’s biggest oil producer. The type of oil pumped out of U.S. shale fields is a bad match for many domestic oil refineries, which has created supply imbalances and increased the pressure to allow exports.

What happens after Thursday’s vote depends upon lawmakers’ appetite for a deal. The legislation probably has enough support to clear the House but its passage through the Senate, where Democrats hold more sway, is uncertain. The Obama administration opposes the House measure.

‘Crystal Clear’

“Our position on this bill is crystal clear,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said after the vote. He stopped short of issuing a veto threat.

Representative Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat, said his support hinges upon “specifics that have yet to be ironed out,” including assurances that minority- and women-owned businesses will have fair access to federal contracts.

Pennsylvania Democrat Representative Michael Doyle said the current bill is “a little premature.” Lawmakers should focus on ways to improve U.S. oil refining capacity, since the nation still consumes more crude than it produces, he said.

Don’t Slam Door

Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who voted against the measure, nonetheless said that a move to relax restrictions on exports “is not something we should slam the door on.”

While the bill needs more environmental protections, the U.S. should keep open the possibility of future exports to Europe which, Engel said, “is being blackmailed by Russia” on oil and natural gas resources.

Texas Representative Gene Green, one of the Democrats to approve the bill in committee, said after the hearing that Republicans didn’t go far enough to reach an agreement with Democrats. “They did compromise some -- not enough,” said Green.

Lawmakers still need to address how the bill’s language would affect the Jones Act, the nearly century-old statute requiring ships moving between U.S. ports to be U.S.-built and American-crewed, he said. Still, Green was optimistic that the bill could be improved when it reaches the House floor, saying, “This is a continuing effort.”

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