By Selam Gebrekidan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The number of Americans who believe U.S. oil should be kept on U.S. soil to lower gasoline prices rose in the last four months, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll.
Some 77 percent of respondents support export restrictions if that will help them save at the pump, showing how oil producers have failed to gain popular support to end a decades-old export ban. Only 69 percent thought so in a similar poll in November.
A majority of respondents polled in March - 71 percent - opposed oil exports if they raise the price of gasoline, up from 67 percent in November. The country remains evenly divided over crude oil exports when they are not linked to gasoline prices.
Major oil producers such as ExxonMobil and Chevron argue that export restrictions, in place since the 1970s, will depress the price of U.S. oil and crimp output from new oil fields in North Dakota and Texas, now at a 26-year high. Oil refiners, on the other hand, say exports will dry up cheap supplies and raise gasoline prices.
Earlier this month, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said the oil industry needs to do a better job making its case in support of exports, especially since the nation relies on imports of foreign oil to this day.
To view results of the Reuters/Ipsos poll, click: http://link.reuters.com/zeq77v
With voters still fretting over the price of gasoline, congress is unlikely to push for policy change before the mid-term elections in November, experts said.
"People may not know how much they're paying for electricity but gasoline prices are displayed in 3-feet high letters. These prices are sensitive signals in the economy," says Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and a senior White House energy advisor until late 2012.
"As a society, and as policy makers, people are trying to understand what the impacts (of exports) will be," he added.
The latest results were taken from a Reuters/Ipsos poll of 1,345 Americans between Mar 15-19. The credibility interval, a measure of precision, is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
It is unclear what effect oil exports would have on gasoline prices. But some analysts speculated that they could in fact make gasoline cheaper.
The price of U.S. gasoline is set in a global market because the United States already exports nearly 5 percent of the gasoline it produces, a figure that is expected to rise in the coming years, analysts said.
That is likely why the price of gasoline, adjusted for inflation, hovered near $3.35 a gallon in February, despite the explosive growth in the nation's oil production, some experts said.
U.S. exports would add to global supplies and lower the price of international oil benchmark Brent, some analysts argue. That may in turn result in lower gasoline prices across America.
"We believe that delivering U.S. oil into the global market could have the effect of depressing Brent prices, which is what gasoline is priced off of," said Patrick Hughes, an analyst with Height Securities in Washington, D.C.
"But we're not expecting dramatic reductions in price, it will be a low percentage change," he added.
However, independent refiners such as Valero Energy, the first refiner to publicly oppose easing the restrictions, say this argument is flawed.
"The whole reason producers support unlimited exports is because they're seeking a higher price for their oil," says Bill Day, a Valero spokesman.
"It's pretty clear to us that higher crude oil prices should lead to more expensive gasoline," he added.
(Editing by Edward McAllister and Sofina Mirza-Reid)