The ban was first introduced almost 4 decades ago by Congress in response to the Arab oil embargo in the seventies, which plunged America into recession.
The legislation also established what is known as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), which stockpiles amounts of crude oil. The SPR is designed to hold roughly 727 million barrels, but currently holds some 690 million barrels.
In response to growing pressure to relax the ban, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to examine the implications of removing the restrictions.
Its report was released yesterday and will be seen as a massive setback for the industry in its attempts to overturn the ban, despite the way the industry and the press have spun the story in the last 24 hours.
Most media outlets have led on the headline that lifting the ban would lift US domestic oil production, probably decreasing the cost of gasoline to American consumers. It might even lift oil prices.
But the bottom line is that the GAO does not recommend relaxing the ban, instead it recommends that the Secretary of Energy re-examines the size of the SPR, something that the Department of Energy “concurs” with.
As one media outlet wrote yesterday the report “isn’t the silver bullet that export advocates want”.
Then there is also the downside of lifting the ban.
As the GAO states: “Additional crude oil production may pose risks to the quality and quantity of surface groundwater sources; increase greenhouse gas and other emissions; and increase the risk of spills from crude oil transportation.”
The main GAO quoted a report by Resources for the Future which estimated that lifting the ban would increase carbon dioxide emissions worldwide by almost 22 million metric tons per year.
Other research by Oil Change International, released in March this year, has calculated that the lifting the ban could release 4.4 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere when burned, which is the “equivalent of annual emissions of 1,252 average U.S. coal power plants, or lifetime emissions from 42 coal plants.”
So lifting the ban would keep our foot firmly on the fossil fuel pedal at the precise time we need to be disinvesting from fossil fuels. As InsideClimateNews reported yesterday, lifting the ban “means following the business-as-usual pathway toward busting the world’s carbon budget.”
So if Obama is to have any credibility on climate, the ban has to stay in place.