In the pre-Christmas doldrums last December, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power gathered in its wood-paneled chambers for an unusual hearing. On the agenda: whether the U.S. should lift its long-standing ban on most crude-oil exports.
Even a few years ago, the suggestion would have been dismissed out of hand. Politicians on the left and right have long held that U.S. dependence on foreign oil is one of the gravest threats to national security. But as Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas noted at the December hearing, “It’s a different world today.” Technological advances like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have pushed domestic oil production to 9 million barrels per day in late 2014, up from 5 million in 2006. By some measures, America is now the world’s top oil-producing nation. And the dramatic rise in domestic production, paired with tumbling oil prices, has sparked a new debate over the merits of an old policy. “The current energy revolution,” says Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, “creates an opportunity for our nation to take on a different kind of role–as a major energy producer and exporter.”
One of the driving forces behind the push to lift the ban has been the U.S. petroleum industry, which is eager to tap into new markets for the abundance of light, sweet domestic crude produced in hot spots like North Dakota’s Bakken formation. But beyond oil-industry lobbying, economists and energy experts have come to believe the policy is simply a relic. It dates to 1975, when the pain of the Arab oil embargo was fresh and the specter of further shortages haunted Capitol Hill. “The original logic doesn’t have any bearing today,” says Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In a significant step, the U.S. Department of Commerce quietly loosened restrictions last year on the sale of condensate–a type of ultra-light oil–to foreign buyers. By some estimates the move could produce exports of up to 1 million barrels per day by the end of 2015. The milestone cheered export supporters, but the decision to make the change with little publicity underscored its slippery politics.
This isn’t a typical partisan debate, though. It’s a clash between powerful special interests on both sides of the political divide. It pits major oil companies against environmentalists, who are wary of more drilling, and oil refiners, who say easing the restrictions would increase costs. “There is justifiable concern that the price at the pump will go up if exports are permitted,” says Jay Hauck, executive director of the CRUDE Coalition, a group of refiners.
A gusher of academic research suggests otherwise. “There’s not much downside to changing the policy,” says Jason Bordoff, a former adviser to President Obama who now serves as director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. Studies suggest it would give the U.S. flexibility in the global oil market and offer modest benefits to consumers. But that reality hasn’t filtered down to voters, 7 in 10 of whom oppose allowing energy companies to export oil and gas to foreign countries, according to a recent study conducted for the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
As a result, many members of Congress who might like to relax the ban are fearful of being punished by voters when oil prices rise–as they inevitably will. If the Obama Administration doesn’t act, Murkowski, chair of the Senate Energy Committee, plans to introduce legislation. But it’s an open question when that may be.
This appears in the February 02, 2015 issue of TIME.