Lawsuit challenges secretive surge in US oil exports

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Increasing U.S. oil exports seen as environmental threat by conservation groups.

Conservation groups say recent increases may be illegal

Staff Report

Conservation activists want to know why U.S. oil exports have been increasing despite a Congressional ban. According to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and ForestEthics, exports increased from 44,000 barrels per day in 2009 to 351,000 barrels per day in 2014.

The lawsuit challenges the Bureau of Industry and Security, an agency within the Department of Commerce, for withholding documents related to its oil-export approval process. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

“President Obama’s secretive approval of crude oil exports hurts our climate and exposes more people and wildlife to fracking pollution,” said Jean Su, the Center attorney filing the case. “Hiding these actions under a shroud of secrecy is not just bad policy, but unlawful. Selling U.S. crude abroad undercuts the president’s own goal of cutting greenhouse gas pollution and encourages more dangerous drilling and fracking that spoils our landscapes, threatens our water and harms our communities,” Stu said.

The groups requested copies of oil-export permits, environmental studies and other documents from the Bureau, but that request was denied earlier this year.

Under existing law crude oil export is generally prohibited unless the federal government makes a finding that such export is in the “national interest.” But the Bureau has still regularly approved oil-export requests. Last month it approved large-scale export of light U.S. crude to Mexico. In December the agency redefined an ultralight oil known as condensate as falling outside the ban.

The grouss are concerned that recent export approvals have apparently been granted without any environmental review — thus the requests for documentation.

“Will the Obama administration choose national security or oil industry influence and secrecy?” said Ross Hammond, ForestEthics US campaign director. “The U.S. will move beyond oil, but as we do it we need secure domestic supplies and we need to ensure that the dirtiest, most dangerous crude is not moving on mile-long oil trains through our towns and cities to reach ports and coastal refineries.”

The lawsuit comes as oil companies and their allies in Congress press to overturn the four-decade old export prohibition. Several pending bills would relax or even completely eliminate the ban.

Completely ending the export ban could increase domestic oil production by more than 3 million barrels a day, according to a recent estimate by the Center for American Progress. As a result the United States would lose more than 100 square miles of land a year to drilling and oil infrastructure, face risks from the annual transport of enough oil to fill 4,500 fire-prone rail tank cars, and, ultimately, suffer the release of more than 500 million tons of additional carbon pollution.

Scientists have estimated that at least 80 percent of fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground if the world is to have a realistic chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

“To avoid a global warming catastrophe, we’ve got to leave the vast majority of dirty fossil fuels in the ground — not ship them overseas so U.S. oil companies can increase their windfall profits,” said Su.

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