By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lifting the 40-year ban on U.S. crude exports is the fastest way the American drilling boom could be used to bolster energy security in Europe and Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, the CEO of the biggest operator in North Dakota's vast oil fields will tell lawmakers on Wednesday.
In the wake of Russia's invasion and annexation of the Crimean region of Ukraine, several U.S. lawmakers have introduced bills pushing the Department of Energy to speed approvals of U.S. liquefied natural gas exports from more than 20 projects.
The extra U.S. LNG, the argument goes, would provide Europe an alternative to gas supplies from Russia, from which it gets nearly a third of its fuel, or at least it would help lower prices in natural gas markets.
But the first U.S. project to export LNG from the United States to countries with which Washington does not have free trade agreements would not launch until late next year. Other projects would take years longer as billions of dollars of equipment needs to be built. In addition, Ukraine lacks an LNG port, and Turkey does not allow LNG tankers to reach the country through the Bosphorus straits.
"While opening LNG exports is a noble goal and one that we as a country are actively working towards, the fact is the infrastructure to undertake large scale overnight LNG exports does not currently exist," Harold Hamm, the chairman and CEO of Continental Resources Inc, will tell lawmakers at a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing slated for 10 a.m. on Wednesday.
"If we want to have an overnight impact on today's global events, we can immediately begin exporting crude oil, which does
not have the same infrastructure constraints" as LNG, he will say, according to prepared remarks.
Hamm could benefit from an easing of the export ban by selling more of the crude from the Bakken North Dakota oilfields, where Continental is the biggest lease holder.
DROP IN THE SEA
The idea that U.S. crude exports could make a big difference in Europe is not shared by everyone. Michael Levi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who will also testify at the hearing, has written that the ability of U.S. oil exports to weaken Russian President Vladimir Putin's hand is less powerful than many think.
U.S. exports would be "a drop in an already large sea" and much of Europe is unable to quickly switch to different oil types because of infrastructure bottlenecks, he wrote in a blog.
The United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia are the world's top oil producers.
While pressure is building on the administration of President Barack Obama to lift the ban that originated from the oil price shocks of the 1970s, few analysts think an outright reversal will come anytime soon.
The United States still imports much of its oil, so it could be a few years before it has so much that most companies will need to find new markets. In addition, no major legislation to lift a ban currently exists, in part because few lawmakers in an election year want to support a measure that could be blamed for having the potential to raise motor fuel prices.
Still, Obama could create a new category of export licenses as a matter of national interest, as has been done for bits of the market in the past. President Ronald Reagan did so with U.S. crude exports to Canada, while Bill Clinton allowed exports of Alaskan crude.
The administration could also allow export licenses on a case-by-case basis of batches, if it is in the national interest
and if a company is able to prove the oil could not be marketed in the United States.
Worries about higher fuel prices resulting from a reversal of the ban could be overdone, according to one analyst.
Elizabeth Rosenberg, director of the energy, environment and security program at the Center for a New American Security, will tell the lawmakers that lifting the ban could raise some crude prices in line with global benchmarks.
But a broad hike in fuel prices at gasoline stations would be unlikely, and most U.S. motor fuel prices could even drop several cents per gallon, she will tell lawmakers.
If the ban is not overturned, it could push U.S. crude producers to eventually slow output, which could undermine global energy security. "Without the crude export relief valve, oil companies will pull back on what will be increasingly uneconomic production," she will tell the hearing, according to prepared remarks.
(Editing by Ken Wills)