The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Bernie Sanders could hurt the U.S. economy with this executive order

A maze of crude oil pipes and valves at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in Freeport, Tex., in 2016.
A maze of crude oil pipes and valves at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in Freeport, Tex., in 2016. (Richard Carson/Reuters)

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-Vt.) may or may not have won the Iowa caucuses as he claimed on Thursday, but whatever the final result of that troubled vote count, the Sanders campaign has momentum heading into New Hampshire. Political analysts regard him as a serious contender to capture the Democratic presidential nomination — which means that both his record and his policy proposals deserve scrutiny to match.

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Mr. Sanders’s team has helpfully provided some indication of what the early days of his administration would look like, in the form of a list of possible executive actions, first reported by The Post’s Jeff Stein and Sean Sullivan on Jan. 30. Many of them are similar to what other Democratic candidates might do, and, on the merits, laudable — such as raising the number of refu­gee admissions and halting construction of President Trump’s wasteful border wall. But in one key policy area, a measure Mr. Sanders is contemplating would simultaneously harm the U.S. economy and help the dictatorships of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

We refer to his reported plan to declare climate change a national emergency and, using that as legal authority, reinstate the ban on U.S. crude oil exports that Congress and President Barack Obama lifted on a bipartisan basis at the end of 2015. When the United States adopted the ban back in the mid-1970s, it had at least a plausible policy basis. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had firm control of world oil markets, so it made sense to, in effect, force U.S. producers to sell to domestic refiners so that the latter would be less subject to OPEC price-gouging. In today’s world, however, OPEC has been weakened by its own divisions and by the emergence of the United States as the world’s largest producer. Much U.S. crude is ill-suited, chemically, for U.S. refineries but works well abroad; eliminating exports, now approaching 3 million barrels per day, would eliminate these efficiency benefits. It would also cost billions of dollars; crude oil sales abroad earned $65.3 billion in 2019.

And banning exports is not the way to combat climate change. Other oil suppliers would immediately rush to fill the void — among them the aforementioned Russian, Saudi and Venezuelan state companies, whose revenues fund repression, foreign intervention and bureaucracy.

The next administration should work urgently to promote a transition to a non-fossil-fuel future — most saliently, by working with Congress to put a rising price on carbon fuels. In the meantime, there’s no reason to let hostile dictatorships dominate the world oil market in place of this country and democratic friends such as Canada, Mexico and Norway. The latter gets 60 percent of its export revenue from oil and gas exports, which it uses to fund a generous universal health-care system, subsidies for environmentally friendly technology and foreign assistance to the developing world. None of that would be possible if Norway adopted an export ban of its own. Mr. Sanders should pick another issue on which to demonstrate that he doesn’t always support the Scandinavian model.

Read more:

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