Business execs, lawmakers back natural gas exports

A coalition of business executives, former lawmakers and government officials on Wednesday advanced a broad blueprint for boosting U.S. energy production while paring demand and fostering innovation.

The report by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s strategic energy policy offers up 50 recommendations, from accelerating oil and gas drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and along the East Coast to phasing out a renewable energy production tax credit over the next three years.

Although the panel dodged some fiery debates — such as how to tackle climate change and whether the Obama administration should approve the Keystone XL pipeline — the group was unanimous in saying the U.S. should not restrict exports of natural gas and other fossil fuels.

Trade restrictions would not further “domestic economic interests” or help slash greenhouse gas emissions, the group concluded, and exporting natural gas is likely to result in “only modest impacts” on domestic prices.

The position is particularly notable given the array of business executives and others that developed the 157-page report, including Exxon Mobil Corp. Vice President William Colton, Anadarko Petroleum Corp. executive chairman James Hackett, DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman and Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s energy program.

Manufacturers such as Dupont have benefited from relatively low natural gas prices, and some environmentalists say exports would strengthen ties to another fossil fuel at a time when the U.S. and other countries should be aggressively pursuing alternatives.

Former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said the group “concentrated on the areas where we could find a unified voice.”

One especially hard-fought set of recommendations surrounded offshore drilling. The group wants Obama’s Interior Department to accelerate oil and gas drilling along the mid and south Atlantic Coast by considering holding at least one lease sale in the region by mid-2017. Any areas up for grabs should first have been reviewed and approved through a “rigorous coastal and marine spatial planning process,” with the involvement of stakeholders, the panel said.

“This was an issue of high interest and lively discussion,” noted Susan Tierney, a former assistant energy secretary under President Clinton. “One of the reasons we could agree to exploring more opportunities to drill offshore is to do that through a process that is open (and) that is consistent with marine and spatial planning.”

Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator William Reilly also noted that the White House has “made clear there is not going to be any offshore oil and gas development” where adjacent states are opposed to the activity.

The group also endorsed the Department of Defense’s plans to buy advanced biofuels to power its fleet of planes, tanks and ships, despite broad criticism of the program from Capitol Hill. Navy test exercises last July used biofuels purchased for roughly $27 per gallon, drawing fire from Republicans who called the program a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The panel also uniquely recognizes energy efficiency as a resource, said  Cavanagh of Natural Resources Defense Council.

The group did not wade into a contentious debate over the future of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires refiners to blend steadily increasing amounts of ethanol and other alternatives — up to 36 billion gallons in 2022 — into the nation’s transportation fuel supply.

The oil industry is waging a fierce battle against the mandates, including requirements for next-generation biofuels made from non-food materials, dubbed “phantom fuels,” because almost none  has been produced commercially in the United States. The American Petroleum Institute is lobbying Congress to spike the renewable fuel standard entirely.

Acknowledging “diverse views regarding the Renewable Fuels Standard,” the panel said it agreed “the nation should continue to develop advanced renewable fuels.”

“The federal government should pursue sustained investment in research and development for transportation fuels, vehicles and infrastructure to advance more efficient and cleaner energy consumption in the transportation sector,” the group concluded.

The group’s report joins a series of similarly thick energy policy documents unveiled in recent weeks, including proposals by the Business Roundtable and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. But Bipartisan Policy Center members on Wednesday were taking their report straight to Capitol Hill, where they were meeting with top lawmakers from the House natural resources and energy committees.