Permitting Oil and Gas Exports Is a No-Brainer

Following today’s deadline for interested party comments, the U.S. Department of Energy will begin to consider sixteen pending applications to export natural gas to countries like Japan with whom the United States does not have a free trade agreement.  The issue is a contentious one: energy producers, many other U.S. companies and a large, bipartisan swath of Congress have urged DOE to approve all export license applications, but opposition has materialized among certain domestic consuming industries and environmental groups.  As a result, the Obama administration has delayed consideration of all but one application, and is expected to eventually permit a portion of the remaining exports in an attempt to placate both sides of the debate.

As I explain in a new Cato Institute paper, however, such a Solomonic decision might achieve the administration’s political objectives but will do nothing to fix the fundamental problems raised by U.S. export regulations for natural gas or similar rules for crude oil.  These exports continue to be governed by licensing systems adopted when the United States was a net energy importer and dependent on fossil fuels for energy production – a picture far different from the production, price, and trade realities that exist today due to revolutionary fossil fuel extraction technologies like hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and horizontal drilling.  In fact, domestic production of crude oil and natural gas has skyrocketed in recent years, driving down prices, boosting downstream industries, creating ample export opportunities and potentially reversing the United States’ historic position as a net energy importer.  However, our gas and oil export licensing systems – respectively governed by the Natural Gas Act of 1937 and the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 – continue to treat fossil fuel exports as a rarity and subject them to a long, opaque approval process under which the federal government retains ample discretion to approve or deny most export license applications.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these outdated systems, and the restrictions they impose on U.S. exports, create a host of problems:

  • First, by depressing domestic prices and subjecting export approval to the whims of government bureaucrats, the U.S. licensing systems retard domestic energy production, discourage investment in the oil and gas sectors, and destabilize the domestic energy market. Artificially low prices prevent producers from achieving a sustainable rate of return on the massive up-front costs required to drill and extract oil and gas, and investors lack any assurances under the discretionary licensing systems that domestic prices will not collapse when output increases.  Such concerns have led the IEA to recently warn that U.S. export restrictions put the “American oil boom” at risk.  And contrary to certain politicians’ claims, independent reports show that the exportation of oil and gas would not cause a traumatic spike in prices, thus enabling consumers to continue to benefit from hypercompetitive U.S. fuel and feedstock supplies.
  • Second, restricting U.S. gas and oil exports could hurt the U.S. economy. Recent studies indicate that these exports - even in unlimited quantities - would not only benefit U.S. energy producers, but also increase real household income.
  • Third, both export licensing systems raise serious concerns under global trade rules.  The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) prohibits WTO Members from imposing export restrictions implemented via slow or discretionary licensing systems like those at issue here.  Moreover, several nations, including the United States, impose anti-subsidy measures (called “countervailing duties” or “CVDs”) on downstream exports (e.g., steel) due to export restrictions on their upstream inputs (e.g., iron). Thus, the crude oil and natural gas licensing systems could lead to anti-subsidy duties on energy-intensive U.S. exports that negate the very price advantages created by the licensing systems – a heightened risk, given that American exporters are increasingly targeted by foreign CVD actions.
  • Fourth, current policy contradicts several other Obama administration priorities.  Most obviously, restricting oil and gas exports undermines the president’s National Export Initiative and stands in stark contrast to his full-throated advocacy of other energy exports, particularly renewables like biofuels and solar panels. Moreover, the use of export restrictions to benefit downstream industries contradicts longstanding U.S. policy of using countervailing duties to discourage foreign imports that unfairly benefit from export restrictions on upstream inputs.  Finally, the U.S. government has long opposed restrictive and opaque export licensing systems in WTO negotiations and dispute settlement.  The current U.S. export licensing regulations for oil and gas contradict these positions and undermine multilateral efforts to rein in such restrictions.

If President Obama really wants to develop America’s vast energy resources, grow the U.S. economy, restore some coherence to U.S. trade and energy policy, and avoid potentially embarrassing trade conflicts, he should order DOE to immediately approve all, not just some, of the pending license applications for natural gas and crude oil.  He then should pursue, with Congress, an overhaul of our archaic licensing systems so that they reflect the new American energy landscape and the United States’ position as a global export power.  Such reforms would bolster investment, production, and employment in the oil and gas sector, stabilize the U.S. energy market and benefit the overall economy, avoid the myriad policy and legal problems raised by the current system, and produce a rare moment of bipartisan comity in Washington.  It’s a no-brainer.