WASHINGTON — A decades-long ban on crude oil exports is up for repeal, legislation that is expected to glide through the U.S. House at the end of the week. Though there is little doubt that the repeal will pass the lower chamber, it still faces serious obstacles before becoming law.
The Obama administration is telegraphing that the president is no fan of getting rid of the ban, citing environmental concerns. But the push for crude oil onto the international market is a pet cause for a dogged bipartisan group of Texas U.S. House members, including U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo.
"It's going to pass," said Cuellar.
Even Capitol Hill proponents of the ban agree that a repeal will pass on Friday, when House members are scheduled to vote on it. But what is not clear is what the U.S. Senate will do and how far the Obama administration is willing to go in its opposition.
"I think this is something that will be worked out later on, in the House and the Senate," Cuellar added.
For the last 40 years, American companies could export refined petroleum products such as gasoline or diesel fuel, but most crude oil drilled here is not allowed on the international market.
The law dates back to the mid-1970s when global oil prices jumped in reaction to the 1973 Arab oil embargo. President Gerald Ford signed the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act banning crude oil exports with few exceptions, aiming to retain oil domestically and protect against price shocks.
Plenty of Texas delegation members are hopeful that this is the year the ban will go away. U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, predicted that a repeal could come as soon as Christmas.
But the White House poured cold water on those hopes in a Tuesday email to The Texas Tribune.
"The Administration does not support efforts to move this bill," a White House official wrote. "At this time, legislation that removes crude export restrictions is not needed. Congress should be focusing on meeting America's clean energy needs and our transition to a low-carbon economy."
But delegation members behind a repeal remain hopeful that the White House does not escalate the rhetoric into a full-blown veto threat.
If that happens, a repeal will need far more than simple majority in both chambers to override a presidential veto. In the House, Cuellar, Barton and others will need somewhere in the ballpark of 45 House Democrats to accomplish that task. And that figure is based on the assumption that House Republicans do not defect.
Some on Capitol Hill who want to see the ban stay in place point to northeastern Republicans as a possible source of opposition to repeal. Republicans from that region tend to be more moderate than others in the party and represent districts with refineries, which are at economic risk if the ban is lifted.
There are also refineries in Houston, and that weighs on U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a Houston Democrat.
"I would like to vote for" the repeal, he said, adding that he and Barton discussed the legislation over the weekend at the Texas A&M University football game in College Station. Over the last several months, Green has struggled with supporting the legislation, and he is not committing to voting for it on Friday.
"I was trying to find a way where we could export, but not just opening the spigot where we put our local domestic refiners at a disadvantage, but we haven't gotten there yet."
On Tuesday night, Cuellar said his agenda was to wrangle as many votes on the House floor from his Democratic colleagues as they voted on unrelated legislation. He is a key Democratic advocate for a repeal and his goal was to expand support from a base that includes U.S. Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, and Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth.
"I think what do we have right now?" Cellar asked as he flipped through notes. "Sixteen [House Democrats] that have actually signed on. ... Hopefully, we'll double that."
Cuellar then disappeared to the House floor to work over his fellow Democrats. A few minutes later, he emerged again. Nodding toward his colleagues, he smiled.
"I might even have a bigger number," he said, indicating he picked up new commitments.
Jim Malewitz contributed to this report.