By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers gave a preview on Thursday of a looming fight next year on lifting the ban on crude exports with supporters saying it would sustain the drilling boom and others questioning its impacts on industry and fuel prices.
In a House of Representatives hearing on the ban, Texas Republican Joe Barton said exporting oil would boost the economy, lower gas prices, and help give allies alternative oil supplies to Russia.
By some measures the United States is the world's top oil producer and Barton said the country should use that power.
"When you're number one, you use that status," said Barton, who introduced a short, 1.5 page bill this week to lift the ban Congress passed in 1975 after the Arab oil embargo.
The U.S. drilling boom of the last five or six years has led to a glut of light crude many oil refiners, who paid dearly to retool plants to run heavy crude, are unable to easily process.
Barton's fellow Republican, Lisa Murkowski, an Alaskan and the incoming Senate energy chairman, and Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, are big supporters of removing the ban. They face an uphill battle in both Houses of Congress in getting widespread support.
Many lawmakers from states with economies that are heavily dependent on energy are concerned they could see higher costs from U.S. oil exports. Barton's fellow Republicans Representatives John Shimkus, and David McKinley of West Virginia, and Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania, questioned the panel of oil market experts at the hearing on how industry would be affected by lifting the ban.
Pitts asked Adam Sieminski, head of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, if there was a guarantee lifting the ban would remove volatility in gasoline prices. Sieminski said there was a chance U.S. oil exports could cause global crude prices to rise temporarily if they caused unrest in an oil producing nation.
He stressed that U.S. gasoline prices are mostly based on global Brent crude prices, which many analysts say should fall in the long term if the U.S. ban is lifted.
Shimkus said he has "tons of questions" about removing the ban.
As pressure builds to lift the trade restriction, the U.S. Department of Commerce has told at least three companies that they can export a minimally-processed light crude called condensate.
Oil producers want the Obama administration to allow all condensate to be exported as a first step in removing the ban. There are no signs this will happen soon.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has said the administration is looking at the oil export issue but there have been no policy changes. Froman told CNBC on Thursday the domestic oil boom has helped draw more investment to the United States and made it "a place where companies want to put their factories both to serve the U.S. market but also to export (products) all over the world."
Murkowski has said she will introduce legislation, perhaps next year, to lift the ban if the administration does not take action.
(Additional reporting by Krista Hughes; editing by Andrew Hay)