Exporting Oil Overseas Would Come at a Huge Environmental Cost

Oil exports have been a major topic of discussion in recent months, as the United States has relaxed and considered lifting its long-standing ban on exporting oil to other nations. But a new report outlines exactly how exporting oil overseas would impact the country’s environment, not just in terms of increased carbon emissions but also in terms of the risks posed by transportation and changing land use.

The report, published Friday by the Center for American Progress (CAP), lays out the environmental reasons why Congress, which is expected to vote on a bill to lift the oil export ban once it returns to session next month, should seriously examine the environmental downfalls of oil exports.

“A hasty decision to outsource U.S. refinery capacity might boost oil company profits, but it would also carry a high environmental price tag and create uncertainty for consumers,” Matt Lee-Ashley, director of the Public Lands Project at CAP and co-author of the report said in a statement. “Congress should carefully weigh the full costs and risks of outsourcing American oil.”

The ban on oil exports was instituted by Congress in the 1970s. At that time, lawmakers wanted to save the United States’ reserves of oil, rather than import them overseas. Now, however, as oil production in the U.S. has increased, oil companies and lawmakers see economic potential in foreign markets.

But, as the report notes, that potential would come at a cost, including losing a major amount of land to oil production. The studies CAP analyzed predicted that oil production will increase if the crude oil export ban was lifted. These studies and data showed that an average of 26,385 new oil wells would be drilled in the U.S. each year between 2016 and 2030 if the ban is lifted — 7,600 more wells than would be drilled each year if the ban wasn’t lifted. According to the CAP report, this development means that about 137 square miles of land would be turned over to oil development each year — an area that’s larger than Utah’s Arches National Park.

CREDIT: Center for American Progress

The report also outlined the climate consequences of lifting the ban. If the ban is lifted and the United States increases its oil production by 3.3 million barrels per day between 2015 and 2035 — an estimate that’s on the high end of predictions — burning that oil will release more than 515 million metric tons of carbon pollution every year. According to the report, that’s the same as adding 108 million passenger cars to the road or building an additional 135 coal-fired power plants. The report notes that estimates for oil consumption aren’t certain, but that if oil prices do drop after the ban is lifted, that will likely lead to an increase in consumption.

Shipping the oil also creates a major risk. The report states that the oil production that would occur after the ban is lifted would mostly involve light, sweet crude from North Dakota’s Bakken region — a type of oil that’s extremely volatile, making it among the riskiest to transport, especially via train. If higher estimates for new oil production do pan out, the 3.3 million barrels of oil produced each day would be enough to fill 947 oil tankers each year.

“The environmental impacts of increasing U.S. oil exports can affect the global environment, as well,” the report states. “Outsourcing U.S. refining capacity to countries with weaker environmental safeguards, for example, could result in additional air and water pollution in those countries and globally. In addition, if increased U.S. crude oil exports indeed lower international oil prices, as oil producers argue, these lower prices would disincentivize or slow the transition to cleaner and renewable fuel supplies around the world.”

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