Oct 9 – A year of increasingly vocal support for easing a decades-old ban on U.S. crude exports has failed to convince American voters that doing so would be a good idea, according to a new Reuters-IPSOS poll that highlights the political perils of opening the door to shale oil sales abroad.
Americans remain split 50-50 over whether drillers should be allowed to sell their crude abroad, just as they were in the first edition of the survey last November. The poll is the only ongoing effort to gauge public sentiment on the issue, which has become one of the year’s most pressing energy policy questions, particularly ahead of the November mid-term elections.
The survey reinforced a deep-seated fear that exporting crude would result in higher gasoline prices, a notion that many proponents, economists and op-ed writers have sought to debunk. Almost two-thirds of respondents said they would be opposed to crude exports if it caused pump prices to increase.
Proponents say that allowing the growing abundance of U.S. light, sweet shale oil into the global market would actually reduce worldwide crude prices, which would feed through to lower gasoline rates that are primarily tied to world prices. Some refiners have raised concerns about fuel prices, seeking to maintain restrictions that have buoyed their bottom lines.
The poll helps explain why many Republicans, who otherwise support free-trade ideals, have been reticent to take a position on oil exports, especially ahead of the Nov. 4 elections. Only a handful of politicians, most prominently Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, have openly rallied to over turn the ban, or at a minimum exploit existing loopholes.
“These latest polling results are a reminder of the significant hurdle that opponents of the oil export restriction still face in persuading the American people that free trade in oil will not lead to higher gasoline prices,” says Jason Bordoff, a former Obama administration advisor and director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.
“Despite recent studies demonstrating that oil exports will not raise pump prices, and indeed may even lower them, there remains a disconnect between how this issue is discussed and perceived by those in the energy sector and by the general public,” says Bordoff, who reviewed the results for Reuters.
The results may cheer U.S. refiners such as PBF Energy Inc and Alon USA Energy Inc which have banded together this year to forestall efforts to ease the ban.
The lobby group Consumers and Refiners United for Domestic Energy (CRUDE), which includes PBF and Alon plus two other East Coast refiners, commissioned a poll in early August that showed 70 percent of New Hampshire voters would be less likely to vote for an elected official who had backed crude oil exports if gasoline prices rose. That poll included 418 respondents.
The IPSOS-Reuters poll, which surveyed over 5,000 Americans over two weeks in September, found that 68 percent of respondents believe the United States should keep its booming shale oil production at home to lower gasoline prices. Only 16 percent said it should export the oil in order to boost the economy.
In questions that were asked of only half the respondents, 39.6 percent said they believed U.S. producers should be allowed to export overseas, while 38.8 percent were opposed.
Despite Americans’ misgiving, a flow of academic research and op-ed pieces hailing the benefits of exporting oil have emerged from a variety of places this year, including non-partisan think-tanks like the Brookings Institution, free trade proponents like the Wall Street Journal opinion page and even less typically oil-friendly outlets like the New York Times.
Even some staunch Democrats have lent their support. Larry Summers, President Barack Obama’s former economic adviser, says the merits of exports are as obvious as “any significant public policy issue that I have ever encountered.” Former Vice President Al Gore said exports are “almost inevitable,” and the topic is not a priority for his environmental activism.
One of the few questions to show even a small measure of change involved how much Americans know about U.S. oil production. In September, 6.5 percent said they knew “a great deal” and 24 percent said “a fair amount,” up from 5.8 percent and 20.8 percent, respectively, in November last year.
(Reporting by Jonathan Leff; Editing by Marguerita Choy)