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(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden faces growing pressure even from fellow Democrats to address rising gasoline prices with measures such as a ban on oil exports, a move that could upend global markets, discourage shale drilling and end up not helping American drivers that much.
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It was only six years ago that Congress lifted a 40-year-old ban on U.S. oil exports, reshaping global crude flows, shifting geopolitical power and disrupting entire economies. The U.S. has emerged as the world’s largest oil producer and its crude has reached more than 50 countries, with shipments often surpassing those of any OPEC nation aside from Saudi Arabia.
Backtracking now would almost certainly make the country’s flagship West Texas Intermediate crude cheaper, but it would also hurt shale drillers as they recover from last year’s unprecedented market crash. Meanwhile, refiners on the U.S. Gulf Coast that depend on imported oil might end up paying more for those foreign barrels in a global market deprived from U.S. supplies.
“If you block crude and cause an artificial drop in the WTI price, you probably hurt the driller more than you help the driver,” said Kevin Book, managing director of research firm ClearView Energy Partners. “There is more for the U.S. economy to gain from investment in the oil patch than savings in the service aisle.”
For U.S. allies facing a crisis that’s led several U.K. energy providers to go bankrupt and European heavy-industry plants to shut down, a sudden removal of American crude supplies would be a severe blow. U.S. exports have regularly surpassed 3 million barrels a day, more than the production of major OPEC members such as Kuwait and Iran.
“The impact of the ban would be extremely high,” said Matt Salle, a portfolio manager at Tortoise Capital Advisors, a firm that manages roughly $8 billion in energy-related assets. “The push back we would get from overseas markets would be extreme.”
It’s unclear if Biden would go ahead with an export ban, even after Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said last month that was possible. But calls for the administration to do so have intensified as gasoline prices at the pump are at their highest since 2014.
“That’s a tool that we have not used, but it is a tool as well,” Granholm said last month during a forum held by the Financial Times.
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This week, eleven Democratic senators, including several known for their concerns on climate change, urged Biden in a letter to act quickly. The senators invoked the “undue burden” on families and small businesses and pressed for steps including banning exports of U.S. crude.
“As the United States works to boost the development of clean and renewable energy over the long-term, we must ensure that Americans are able to afford to fill up their cars at the pump in the meantime,” said the letter, which was signed by climate hawks such as Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Green New Deal author Ed Markey.
Democrats’ call for action comes as Republicans have been steadily hammering the Biden administration for rising energy prices, while questioning moves that have included a pause on oil and gas drilling and scrapping the Keystone XL oil pipeline project.
Coupling Democrats’ call to unleash more oil into the market place with an export ban could provide cover for green senators who may come under fire from their environmental backers who are more focused on the transition to renewable energy.
An oil export ban, along with a ban on exports for refined products, is among the remedies the White House has prepared as options, though a release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is considered the most likely, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Things got a little more complicated this week after a report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration published on Tuesday estimated the oil market will be oversupplied and prices will fall early next year, giving the administration less fodder to justify an intervention.
“The secretary and the president continue to monitor the markets and prices including the forecast yesterday from the EIA and continue to evaluate any options for appropriate action at the appropriate point,” Jeremiah Baumann, the Energy Department’s deputy chief of staff, told reporters Wednesday.
Still, the most likely course of action is a release of oil from the emergency reserves, said Bob McNally, president of consultant Rapidan Energy Group and a former White House official.
“The administration, by all counts is looking hardest at an SPR release, which the market has come to expect,” McNally said. “I still believe the market is expecting an SPR release later this week and I think that’s the likeliest option.”
That, too, would not be welcome by shale drillers.
“If I’m a producer and I’m thinking about bringing back some rigs and then all of a sudden, the U.S. is going to start really seeing the crude out of the SPR, you’re going to rethink that decision,” Tortoise’s Salle said.
As for an export ban, he just doesn’t see it.
“It’s not going to happen,” Salle said.
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