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UPDATE 1-Key senator urges end to U.S. ban on crude oil exports

Valerie Volcovici
Tuesday, 7 Jan 2014 | 11:01 AM ET

(Adds comments from Murkowski)

WASHINGTON, Jan 7 (Reuters) - The top Republican on the Senate Energy Committee on Tuesday urged an end to a decades-old U.S. ban on exporting crude oil, saying it will disrupt supply and discourage U.S. production rather than keep domestic gasoline prices stable.

Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, at an event at the Brookings Institute in Washington, stated her full support for easing restrictions on crude oil exports as the United States reaches record levels of production.

Murkowski, whose state is alone among U.S. states because it can already export crude oil, released a report aimed at triggering debate among lawmakers over whether the United States should ease the restrictions.

While the United States can export crude oil products such as gasoline and diesel, the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 and the Outer Continental Shelf Leasing Act require a presidential waiver to sell most unrefined crude oil abroad. This effectively bars exports for now.

"To the extent that the crude oil export ban contributes to supply disruptions and decelerating oil production (which affects employment), then the American consumer will suffer the consequences," Murkowski said.

She said the administration should be able to use its authority to lift the existing ban on crude oil because it many not be possible to economically refine the glut of light sweet crude oil being produced, and this could qualify for a waiver.

"We can do more to increase refining capacity. We have seen those adjustments or reconfiguration within our refineries to accommodate LTO (light tight oil) but I do think we get to a point where it is this mismatch, where we are not able to gain alignment because we cannot continue with the retrofit of those refineries," Murkowski said.

The senator said she does not plan to launch comprehensive legislation on the topic - in part because 2014, an election year, might not yield much action in Congress - but did not rule out a "small, targeted bill to move the ball forward."

She added that if the White House disagrees and chooses to maintain the ban, "then the Senate should update the law to reflect 21st-century conditions."

BIGGEST DEBATE

The issue of whether the United States should export crude oil is shaping up to be among the biggest energy debates of 2014.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz raised eyebrows last month when he said this and other energy policies, crafted during an era of scarcity, should be revisited.

Recent editorials in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, among others, have called for an end to the ban. Later on Tuesday the American Petroleum Institute, a lobbying group for the oil industry, will renew its call for lifting the ban.

Murkowski does not yet have plans to introduce legislation to lift the ban or to hold specific hearings on it but wants to win over other senators with facts, spokesman Robert Dillon said.

Murkowski's Democratic counterpart on the Senate Energy Committee, Ron Wyden, is due to leave his post to take over the reins of the Senate Finance Committee.

Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, a backer of the energy industry, is expected to take Wyden's place and could be more receptive to discussions on boosting exports.

Landrieu recently told the National Journal that she "would support lifting the (crude oil export) ban if the scientific data shows we should. And I think that is what the data is showing."

At least some Democratic senators, though, have already expressed opposition to any relaxation of the crude oil export ban, including Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

Murkowski, in her report, also urged that the United States drop its ban of financing coal projects overseas since coal trade with foreign partners "remains a bright spot" for the beleaguered coal industry.

As part of a climate action plan announced in June, President Barack Obama said the United States would stop financing fossil fuel projects overseas in a bid to lower global greenhouse gas emissions.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici, editing by Ros Krasny and Chizu Nomiyama)