The Senate's wide-ranging debate on legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline could force some Republicans to weigh in earlier than they would prefer on whether to lift the ban on crude oil exports -- if Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has his way.
The headline-grabbing potential presidential candidate said yesterday that he is planning to offer an amendment that would lift the four-decade-old export prohibition, a move that some export supporters have sought to avoid. Cruz said he was not worried that forcing a vote on the export ban now would force senators to prematurely weigh in on the issue.
"I think it is good policy, and I think we ought to be doing everything we can to bring back jobs and economic opportunity," Cruz told E&E Daily as he boarded a Capitol elevator following last night's procedural vote to advance the KXL bill.
Some supporters of lifting the ban worry privately that the issue could fall victim to attacks that selling U.S. crude abroad would cause domestic gasoline prices to rise. Several studies have shown prices would fall if crude exports were allowed, but it is not clear how widely accepted those results are.
Several Republicans yesterday either declined to discuss the issue or said they had yet to decide a position on the export ban.
"I would have to do a lot of work to prepare myself" if a crude export amendment were to come up for a vote in the next few weeks, said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). "But I would do that work."
Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he recently met with some export supporters who argued that lifting the export ban would help undercut Iranian oil sales to China. "I need to know a little bit more about it, but it was an interesting point that they brought up," he added.
A handful of Republicans from the Midwest, where gasoline prices are typically among the lowest in the nation, also said they were undecided on the crude export ban, including Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Jerry Moran of Kansas and Deb Fischer of Nebraska. Newly elected Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) declined to discuss the issue following last night's vote.
The question of whether to export crude has not been on Washington's energy agenda as long as the parallel debate over exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG), and several senators said they would need to more intensely study the parallels between the two commodities.
"I think there's an economic argument that when you allow some level of export, it just encourages more domestic production, and particularly in the natural gas area, for example, where our competitors pay three times as much as we have," Blunt said in a brief interview yesterday. "It's just that icing on the cake that encourages people to bake the cake. And I think you have to look and see if that same impact is out there for oil."
Debate over KXL is the first test for new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's pledge to return the Senate to regular order and allow for freewheeling debates over floor amendments. However, the Kentucky Republican complained on the floor yesterday that Democrats were delaying the process by demanding extended debates rather than agreeing to quicker consideration of amendments.
McConnell said the consideration of amendments would begin after midnight tonight if Democrats did not agree to cede back the 30 hours of debate time Senate rules require following yesterday's procedural vote, which invoked cloture on the motion to proceed to the bill. As many as 100 amendments or more from both parties are expected to be filed to the bill, but it remains to be seen how many of those would come up for a vote (see related story).
"I am encouraging all kinds of ... amendments, so I think what Senator Cruz is talking about is just one of many out there," said Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
Murkowski almost singlehandedly put the crude export debate on the energy policymaking agenda when she called for the ban to be lifted just over a year ago, but she has said the administration has all the authority it needs to allow for exports and that she did not believe legislation was needed immediately. Yesterday, she questioned whether Cruz would ultimately be able to force the issue.
"You know and I know that you can file an amendment; it's just a question of whether or not you take it up," she told E&E Daily.
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), the lead sponsor of the KXL bill, S. 1, said he hoped a floor debate on a crude export amendment would "help advance that understanding that it's a net benefit for the people of our country" in terms of lowering gasoline prices and creating jobs.
Supporters say exporting U.S. crude would drive down international oil prices, which are the primary influence on domestic gasoline prices, creating a net economic benefit despite the fact that the domestic crude benchmark could go up. Hoeven said it remained to be seen whether enough support for that position could be found in time for a vote on a Cruz amendment.
"We're still working it, and I don't know," he said in a brief interview. "That's what we need to find out where people are in terms of head count, and that's what we don't know yet."
Murkowski is planning a series of hearings throughout the year on a variety of issues she hopes to address in a comprehensive energy bill, on which she is cooperating with her House counterpart, Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.). Crude exports are expected to be among the topics addressed in that process, and some Republicans yesterday suggested that would be a more appropriate venue.
"I think we need to have a lot of discussions about it," said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who was elected in November following two terms in the lower chamber. "The House and the Senate both need to let the committee process work, and we'll see what the amendment looks like."
Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), whose voters also promoted her from the House to the Senate last year, said she supports LNG exports but was still undecided on crude.
As for whether now is the appropriate time to press the issue, Capito said, "Strategically, I don't know that that is even a leap that can be made on this particular piece of legislation."