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By Ari Natter
Jan. 4 — The walls of Rep. Joe Barton's corner office in the Rayburn House Office Building are a testament to his more than 30 years in office. They are covered with framed copies of bills he has authored, or “red lines,” as Barton (R-Texas) calls them, in a reference to the red borders that frame the official printed versions.
Barton, one of the oil and gas industry's most dependable advocates, has plans to add a new red line to his wall: legislation repealing a ban on the export of U.S. crude oil put in place 40 years ago.
The end to the ban, which was considered by most analysts to be a long shot unlikely to happen in 2015, was tucked into the 2,000-page year-end government funding bill as part of an agreement reached by congressional leaders at the 11th hour. The end of the trade prohibition was a win for the oil industry and for Barton, who led House efforts to have it repealed.
“The question was, ‘Could we get it done?' ” Barton, 66, told Bloomberg BNA during a series of interviews. “We had a lot of conventional wisdom that said it couldn't be done. We had to overcome the pessimism.”
Barton said he took up the cause in the face of booming U.S. oil production, which jumped from 5 million barrels a day in 2008 to a projected 9.2 million barrels a day in 2015, thanks to advances hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.
“Previously, it was an academic issue because we really didn't have the capability to export,” Barton said. The increased domestic oil production made ending the ban “a live option.”
Lifting the ban will be a significant benefit to Barton's home state. The policy change could lead to more than 40,000 additional jobs and $5.2 billion in additional income for Texas, according to a study by ICF International.
Barton introduced legislation to end the ban in 2014, but at first it was met with caution from congressional leaders such as Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose support would be needed to advance the bill.
“In the beginning it was kind of a yellow light,” Barton said. “Almost nobody in Congress knew anything about this because we hadn't talked about it in 40 years.”
To build support for the issue, Barton said he did three things. He convinced the conservative Republican Study Committee caucus the issue was a cause worth championing, and he created a new network of supporters outside of Congress that included the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In addition, Barton said he formed an unofficial whip team to convince members to vote for his bill (H.R. 702), which was passed as standalone legislation in October, 261-159, with 26 Democrats voting in its favor (197 DEN A-6, 10/13/15).
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who was leading efforts in the Senate to lift the crude oil export ban from her perch as the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, credits Barton with leading the charge in the lower chamber.
“Stuff like this doesn't just materialize because you have an omnibus bill. You've got to lay the groundwork, and the congressman was key to doing that on the House side,” Murkowski told reporters.
Some colleagues needed more convincing than others that the time is right to lift the ban, Barton said.
“At each stage in the process people who were initially skeptical not only became supportive but enthusiastic, and ultimately we got it done,” Barton said.
Barton's efforts to repeal the ban have put renewed attention on him. The spotlight had faded following a nearly three-year stint, beginning in 2005, as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and four years spent as ranking member of the committee after that.
“That just shows it's good to have a few people around who know the system,” Barton said.
It helped, he added, that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) “didn't make it a blood oath to fight it in the Senate.”
Not everyone is a fan of the lawmaker, who was given the moniker “Smokey Joe” by the Dallas Morning News in 2003, a reference to his efforts to undermine the Clean Air Act.
“Joe clearly earned the term ‘Smokey Joe,' and a lot of the smoke came from oil refineries,” Frank O'Donnell, executive director of Clean Air Watch, told Bloomberg BNA, adding the nickname “certainly got under his skin.”
“He's always had his kind of ‘aw shucks' sort of pseudo-Andy Griffith exterior, coupled with an undercurrent of steel,” said O'Donnell. “He's no where near as soft as first would appear.”
Barton, who is known for not being shy about speaking his mind, famously apologized to BP Plc's chief executive officer in 2010 for what Barton called a “shakedown” of the company by the White House, a reference to the company's commitment to create a $20 billion trust fund for coastal states in the wake of the Gulf oil spill.
House Republican leaders, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), issued a statement saying Barton's apology was “wrong,” and Barton issued a retraction later in the day.
“The past is the past,” Barton said about the incident. “I thought BP was guilty of malfeasance in their drilling program. I was not an apologist for BP.”
Some refiners—who could have to pay more for domestic crude oil and may see profits lowered by as much as $22 billion a year in 2025 by lifting the crude oil export ban—also opposed the deal struck with Democrats to end it, which includes an estimated $24 billion in government spending for renewable energy tax credits.
“Chairman Barton has always been very effective at getting legislation done. Exports were no different,” said Michael McKenna, a lobbyist who counts Koch Industries among his clients. “But the trade (for the tax credits for renewable energy) is a disaster.”
“It wasn't that big a tradeoff,” Barton said of the deal, which also included Democratic demands to drop major energy and environment policy riders from the funding bill and the expansion of a tax break for some oil refiners. “They were going to get renewed anyway.”
Like many other Republicans, Barton says it is not certain that human activity is the main cause of climate change, a view contrary to a scientific consensus.
“I don't think it's determined yet which comes first: the temperature increase or the CO2 increase,” Barton said.
But that hasn't stopped Barton from working with lawmakers such as Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), one of the chamber's most vocal advocates for combating climate change. Markey spent years working with Barton on the opposite side of the aisle on the Energy and Commerce Committee, when Markey was a House member before becoming a senator. They founded a bi-cameral, bi-partisan caucus focused on keeping data, such as Social Security numbers and other information collected by the government, private.
“He is a good friend of mine,” Markey told Bloomberg BNA. “A Texas Republican and a Massachusetts Democrat don't agree on a lot of things, but we've tried to find areas where we agree, and privacy is a good area.”
Barton, for his part, says he has no intention of slowing down and plans to run for re-election in 2016, and has already drawn primary opponents. If the past is any guide, Barton who regularly earned more than 50 percent of the vote in past in elections, will easily win.
Helping to power those victories are contributions from companies such as ExxonMobil Corp., BP Capital and others in the oil and gas industry, a sector that has contributed nearly $100,000 so far this election cycle, according to watch dog group Open Secrets.
“Anybody can name a post office,” Barton said. “In my case, especially in the later years here, shoot for [the] big things.”
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