BISMARCK - A bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp to scrap the nation's ban on exporting crude oil passed a committee Thursday but isn't expected to survive because of an Iran-related amendment, leaving a companion bill as the best bet in the Senate to end the 40-year-old ban.
Heitkamp was the only Democrat who voted for the bill as it passed the Senate Banking Committee on a 13-9 vote.
However, she was encouraged that several Democrats signaled a willingness to discuss dumping the export ban as part of a broader bill.
"I think a lot of members get it. They just want to know what they're going to get for it," she said.
An amendment offered by Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., is expected to derail Heitkamp's bill. It would block the lifting of sanctions under the Iran nuclear deal until Iran pays more than $43 billion in judgments awarded by U.S. courts to American victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorist acts.
The White House has said President Barack Obama would veto similar legislation that passed the House on Thursday.
Congress approved the oil export ban in 1975 in response to an Arab oil embargo, aiming to maintain a crude oil supply at home and insulate the nation from price spikes associated with volatile international markets.
There are some exceptions to the ban, including for oil exported to Canada and certain types of crude from Alaska and California. The government also allows exports of refined petroleum products such as gasoline and diesel.
Heitkamp said lifting the crude export ban would enable the industry to thrive and create jobs. She noted the drilling rig count in North Dakota has dropped to 68 from more than 190 a year ago amid depressed crude prices.
Heitkamp and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee, co-sponsored companion bills introduced in May seeking to end the export ban, with the intent the bills would later be merged.
Murkowski's bill, which now incorporates key elements of Heitkamp's bill, passed the Energy Committee in July. It's expected to be the vehicle for bringing the ban to a Senate floor vote, though it likely won't be as a standalone bill, said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who serves on the Energy Committee.
Hoeven is trying to tie Murkowski's bill to another bill to get it to the floor in October, but he said it's more likely to be attached to year-end legislation that includes government funding, making it less prone to a presidential veto.
"I would say we have probably a little better than a 50-50 shot to move it before year end," he said.
In response to concerns that lifting the ban would result in runaway gas prices, both bills have a provision allowing the president to stop exports if he determines they run counter to national security interests. But the White House said Wednesday it doesn't support Senate efforts to reverse the ban, even with that provision, Reuters reported.
Six Senate Democrats would have to join all 54 Republicans voting in favor of the bill in order to get the 60 votes required for approval. Sixty-seven votes are needed to override a presidential veto.
Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who is co-sponsoring three House bills aimed at lifting the ban, said a vote on the main bill is scheduled for next week and he expects it to pass, adding the most interesting thing will be how big the margin is.
"Obviously that's going to be important to give momentum to the Senate," he said.