Would green groups cut a deal to allow crude exports?

By Phil Taylor, Geof Koss | 10/02/2015 07:06 AM EDT

Could green groups ever support legislation to lift the decades-old ban on crude exports if it included provisions to conserve public lands and wildlife, promote renewable energy or invest in low-carbon technologies?

Could green groups ever support legislation to lift the decades-old ban on crude exports if it included provisions to conserve public lands and wildlife, promote renewable energy or invest in low-carbon technologies?

Or, would they be willing to soften their opposition?

Some groups are debating that internally as momentum for lifting the 1970s-era ban builds in both chambers of Congress.


Yesterday, on a 13-9 vote, the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee became the latest congressional panel to pass legislation lifting the ban (Greenwire, Oct. 1). The House is expected to take up and pass such a bill next week (E&ENews PM, Oct. 1).

But there are rifts among conservation and sportsmen’s groups over the deal-making that will be required to get a bill through both chambers and signed by President Obama.

Many groups are publicly opposed to lifting the ban, noting it would likely result in more oil and gas drilling on lands those groups want to protect for wildlife and recreation while potentially causing more spills and emissions of greenhouse gases.

Lifting the ban would result in a loss of land larger than Delaware to oil and gas infrastructure over the next 15 years, according to a report released in August by the Center for American Progress (Greenwire, Aug. 21). The Congressional Budget Office this week estimated that a House bill lifting the ban would generate $1.4 billion in revenue from additional drilling on public lands and waters.

Until now, however, green groups have stayed mostly on the sidelines of the debate.

That’s got to change, according to Collin O’Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.

"The amount of impacts on wildlife, on public lands, is significant," O’Mara said. "And yet, the vast majority of the debate we’re seeing … the impacts on the landscapes are receiving almost no mention."

O’Mara on Tuesday published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal listing a handful of proposals — full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, billions of dollars for state wildlife projects and extension of clean energy tax credits, among others — that he said ought to be considered if a crude exports bill passes.

The op-ed, which was viewed with some consternation among O’Mara’s conservationist peers, was among the first to lay out a potential path to bring green groups on board for lifting the export ban.

O’Mara made clear that NWF remains opposed to exports and is not proposing a deal. But conservationists, if silent, do run the risk of being left out of the discussion, he said.

"This thing is moving fairly quickly," he said. "Unless we actually say there are impacts to be mitigated, the concern is that other folks won’t be raising that point."

Officials from other conservation groups said they are willing to cut a deal for crude exports, which they see as the lesser of other evils being pushed by GOP leaders. But none were willing to go on the record.

The Sierra Club is not among them, said Athan Manuel,
who lobbies for the group on public lands. But the group is talking with Democrats who are fence-sitters on the exports debate to ensure that if they do back exports, that they cut a good deal for the environment, he said.

"If they do want to make a compromise on this, this is a big, big win for the oil industry," Manuel said. "If they want to lift the ban on exports, we should have a permanent ban on offshore drilling or get a wilderness designation on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge."

Democrats who are viewed as potential pickups for exports who may also go to bat for lands and clean energy include Sens. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Jon Tester of Montana.

Tester voted against the export bill before the banking panel yesterday but said he’s game for a discussion about a broader package that invests in renewable energy and permanently reauthorizes and fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

"I think this bill has real merit, but we need to have a more thorough discussion," Tester said.

Yet proponents of LWCF, who span the political spectrum, aren’t putting many eggs in the exports basket.

The exports push still faces tall odds of becoming law, considering the opposition from the White House and most Democrats and the panoply of add-ons lawmakers of both parties are proposing, running the gamut from language on renewable fuel standards to victims of Iranian-sponsored terror.

ClearView Energy Partners LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that advises clients on energy policy, says there’s a 15 percent chance the export ban will be lifted during the 114th Congress.

"If there was consensus that it was going to move forward, I think [LWCF] definitely would be a chip to play," said former Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), a LWCF backer. "I don’t know if that is a gimme pot."

The debate over crude exports has such big economic and energy security implications that it is unlikely green groups are going to have major clout, said Paul Bledsoe, president of the energy consultancy Bledsoe & Associates and a former Interior Department official in the Clinton administration.

"Environmental groups are not going to drive or determine whether this deal gets done," he said. "Nor is it a high priority for them."

But Democrats see exports as a major deal-making opportunity, Bledsoe said. Members of both parties have talked about increasing funding for clean energy research and development, a provision that could represent a "sweet spot" that could allay Democratic concerns over climate change without turning off Republicans, Bledsoe said.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said yesterday she hadn’t read the conservation proposals put forth by NWF’s O’Mara but that she’s encouraged conservationists are willing to come to the table.

"I think this is good because what it indicates is a willingness to engage," she told E&E Daily.

Murkowski said she spoke this week with representatives of conservation groups during a Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus dinner who said they’d like to discuss crude exports further.

"I told them to come by, let’s sit down," she said.

But Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who is in talks with the Obama administration about lifting the ban, was lukewarm about NWF’s wish list.

"I thought it was aggressive," she told E&E Daily after the Senate Banking Committee approved her bill (S. 1372) to end the ban (Greenwire, Oct. 1).

"I think everybody sees this as an opportunity to have a broader discussion," she said, noting that Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) used yesterday’s markup to "re-litigate" the Iran agreement through an amendment that would keep sanctions in place until Teheran pays judgments awarded to U.S. victims of terrorism attacks (E&E Daily, Sept. 25).

"If we re-litigate or pile on all of this, nothing will get done. And I think that’s bad for energy independence, I think it’s bad for our economy long term, and I think it’s horrible national security policy," Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp said she’s encouraged by her Democratic colleagues who have signaled they could support ending the ban as part of a broader energy push — a position echoed by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Tester during the markup, although she was the only Democrat to vote for ending the ban.

"I believe there’s a number of people in my caucus, I like to put it this way: They get it, they get the economics of this," Heitkamp said. "They get the challenging economics that we’re having right now at $45 a barrel. But they want to know what they can get for it."

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the ranking member on the Banking panel, warned of "piecemeal changes" to crude export policies that don’t address climate change or infrastructure concerns, including safety issues associated with moving crude by rail.

"A broader approach must also include improvements to rail safety," he said yesterday.

During the markup, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) acknowledged that changes in U.S. crude export policy may be warranted but said lawmakers should first hear from scientists about the climate effects of doing so.

"And for those who listen to these scientists, lifting the ban without further considering and addressing the potential environmental consequences sounds pretty darn reckless," Warren said.

However, export backers are pursuing all legislative avenues to see one of their top priorities advance.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who yesterday suggested a crude exports repeal could end up as a policy rider in an end-of-the-year omnibus spending bill under discussion to replace the continuing resolution in December, said he doesn’t see a repeal clearing the chamber on its own.

"My guess is there’s at least a possibility that as part of negotiations toward Dec. 11 — possibility — that a policy change like this could be something that ends up being a rider," he told E&E Daily yesterday. "I mean, I’m not in that discussion, but it’s possible. I don’t think we’re going to pass a standalone bill on the floor relative to exportation in the very near future. "

Corker said he would oppose the inclusion of a repeal in exchange for higher spending levels sought by Democrats but would consider other policy changes as part of a deal.

"That’s what happens in legislation, right?" he said.

Murkowski isn’t ruling out that option.

"I’ve got multiple tracks going," she told E&E Daily. "I’ve got the legislative track, we’re trying to work it through the administration with the waivers, and if we can use the approps process, I think that’s a viable alternative."