Feds approve Cheniere’s plan to export natural gas

Houston-based Cheniere Energy on Monday cleared the final major hurdle to exporting natural gas when federal regulators approved the firm’s plan to build a plant in southwest Louisiana for liquefying the fuel.

The decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission puts Cheniere on track to convert its existing Sabine Pass terminal for receiving liquefied natural gas by 2015 — a timeline that would make it the first LNG export facility in the lower 48 states. One operates now in Alaska.

The company aims to export up to 18 million tons per year from the facility in Cameron Parish near the Texas border. Cheniere plans to build the liquefaction plant in two stages, adding 191 acres to the existing terminal’s space. The facility would still be able to receive liquefied natural gas from tankers.

“Obtaining approval from the FERC is one more milestone for our liquefaction project,” said Cheniere CEO Charif Souki. “We will now finalize the financing arrangements in order to commence construction.”

About half a dozen other companies, including Texas-based Freeport LNG, also are pursuing exports to take advantage of the glut of natural gas produced in the U.S. using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques that free hydrocarbons from dense shale rock formations.

Exports would allow natural gas producers and processors to capitalize on higher prices globally compared to the United States. In the U.S. Monday, natural gas futures settled just over $2 per million British thermal units after hitting 10-year lows last week.

In Cheniere’s case, the strategy is a bid to put its receiving terminal to work. The Sabine Pass terminal went online in 2008, just as U.S. natural gas production surged and killed the need for LNG imports.

When natural gas is cooled to 256 degrees below zero it becomes a liquid that tanker ships can transport. At its destination it is converted back into gas. Cheniere’s Sabine Pass terminal is outfitted with regassification and storage equipment now.

In approving Cheniere’s liquefaction plant plans, FERC also could also give a boost to U.S. producers with big natural gas portfolios.

But a rise in natural gas prices would increase consumers’ monthly bills and also would be bad news for chemical manufacturers that use natural gas as a building block to create other products.

Congressional Democrats have proposed legislation that would ban new LNG exports. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who is pushing a ban, said the expert terminals would mean sending U.S. natural gas to China and Europe 00 and “exporting our manufacturing jobs abroad along with the fuel.”

“America should exploit her competitive advantage with lower natural gas prices to create jobs in the United States, not export natural gas to create more profits for oil and gas companies,” Markey said.

And environmentalists have asked top Obama administration officials to require a broader review of the consequences of the surge in natural gas drilling that probably would result from selling the fuel overseas.

Critics fear hydraulic fracturing can contaminate water supplies and cause localized earthquakes. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement Monday that exports would increase production and hydraulic fracturing, “making a dirty fuel more dangerous and putting more American families in at risk.”

In a separate action Monday, FERC vacated a previously issued approval for an LNG import terminal in Coos County, Ore., after the project backers told regulators that market conditions made the endeavor unattractive. Jordan Cove Energy Project L.P. is now asking regulators to explore the feasibility of building a liquefaction export facility at the same site.

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