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Groups Say Changing Crude Oil Exports Could Change Role Of Northwest Refineries

Orlin Wagner
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The changing composition of crude oil could have big consequences for the future of the Pacific Northwest economy. That’s one of the key ideas behind a Freedom of Information Act request filed Tuesday by three environmental nonprofit groups. It has to do with exceptions being made to the nation’s 40-year policy of banning most exports of crude oil.

Seattle’s Sightline Institute has joined the Earthjustice law firm and a group called Oil Change International in asking the U.S. Department of Commerce for documentation of new exemptions quietly issued to companies including Pioneer Natural Resources Company and Royal Dutch Shell. The groups want such decisions to get more public scrutiny.

Apparently, confusion about definitions is eroding the ban by creating loopholes in the policy, which was first implemented by President Gerald Ford in 1975 and is meant to protect U.S. energy independence.

Sightline’s policy director Eric de Place says we’ve entered a new world with fracking and other drilling techniques for getting lighter crude oils out of the ground. 

"And what’s happening is that the U.S. federal government appears to be sort of changing the way that they define crude oil or changing what they mean when they say refining," de Place said. "So that you can now apparently export certain kinds of lighter crude oil or do very minimal processing of it, and then it’s eligible for export."

On Dec. 30 of last year, the U.S. Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) responded to many requests for clarification with an FAQ on crude oil and petroleum products

But the groups behind the FOIA request say the FAQ has raised more questions than it answers. So they are asking to see details of recent decisions by the BIS that have granted exemptions.  

With the Northwest and its ports a pinch point between U.S. oil production and growing export markets in Asia, de Place says left unchecked, the slow erosion of the export ban could transform the role of refineries here, into relay points that don’t produce much gas or diesel for domestic consumption. For example, he cites concerns about new oil train terminals infrastructure that has been added to nearly all of the major refineries in Washington and Oregon. 

"It is entirely possible that if the export ban gets lifted, they could take in oil trains and move that oil pretty much straight from the train to a ship that's bound for Asian markets, without ever refining it for domestic consumption," de Place said.

And they are concerned communities are neither fully informed nor equipped to handle the changes that might bring, including the possibility of "future negative job growth." 

The groups hope their FOIA request will help paint a clearer picture of what could be a major change in U.S. energy policy. 

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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