WASHINGTON — Five Senate Democrats sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Friday pleading for the government to pick up the pace in vetting proposals to export natural gas.
The senators — including four facing voters for reelection this November — said they are concerned that the Energy Department’s relatively slow work in reviewing applications is preventing the U.S. from realizing potential benefits domestically and abroad. Taking “swift and decisive action” on those export proposals would help safeguard allies overseas “while boosting our economy, creating jobs and protecting the environment here at home,” the senators wrote.
They group told Obama they had united “to demonstrate there is significant Democratic support for this policy, along with Republican interest in this idea as well.”
Directed to Obama — instead of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz — the letter may be a tacit acknowledgement that the administration’s policy on natural gas exports is being shaped by the White House.
It also could escalate the political debate surrounding the issue, as the House prepares to take up legislation that would impose a deadline on the Energy Department’s review of proposed liquefied natural gas exports.
The letter was spearheaded by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who introduced a similar bill to accelerate the review process last March and may push another LNG plan during a Senate debate on energy efficiency.
Other letter signers include Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Mary Landrieu, D-La. — both in tight reelection contests — as well as Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.
Dozens of U.S. facilities are proposed to liquefy natural gas and ship it to customers overseas, particularly in Asia, though just six have so far received export licenses from the Energy Department.
The projects generally must go through two reviews: the Energy Department vets export plans, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission scrutinizes proposed liquefaction facilities on land. For facilities that would be located offshore, the government’s Maritime Administration steps in, instead of FERC.
The senators suggested a number of steps that could speed up the Energy Department’s part of the process, at least for some of the two dozen pending export applications.
One option: Giving priority to projects that have already made serious capital commitments — especially if they have gone far in other federal review processes at FERC or the Maritime Administration.
That would give a boost to some projects who may be more commercially viable but remain far down the Energy Department’s reestablished “order of precedence” for processing applications — which now mostly reflects when projects filed their export proposals with the government.
For instance, FERC has already cleared Cheniere’s plans to expand its liquefaction capacity at its Sabine Pass LNG terminal, currently under construction in southwest Louisiana. But under the current pace of approvals at the Energy Department — with verdicts coming out every two or three months — it could be two years before it is at the front of the line.
Exxon Mobil Corp. and Qatar Petroleum International’s Golden Pass terminal is also far down the Energy Department’s queue, currently No. 9.