Natural gas exports get scrutiny on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON — The spotlight is trained on natural gas exports Tuesday as three congressional committees and the full Senate debate whether to send more of the fossil fuel overseas.

The scrutiny comes as natural gas producers and their allies on Capitol Hill insist more foreign sales of the fossil fuel would blunt Russia’s power and help U.S. allies abroad.

The Energy Department has approved seven licenses for six projects to broadly export natural gas to countries that are not free-trade partners with the United States, with the most recent approval delivered on Monday. But roughly two dozen more applications are awaiting Energy Department review, and export advocates say the backlog is throttling the nation’s potential to be a global energy superpower.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is delving into the issue first with a hearing Tuesday morning. Witnesses include Adam Sieminski, head of the government’s Energy Information Administration, and David Montgomery, senior vice president of NERA Economic Consulting, which wrote a key 2012 report concluding exports would broadly benefit the United States.

That study has underpinned each of the Energy Department’s liquefied natural gas export license decisions so far, as regulators decide whether each application is “consistent with the public interest.” But export critics say it is outdated and needs to be redone.

Lithuania’s energy minister Jaroslav Neverovic is expected to tout the country’s first terminal for importing liquefied natural gas, scheduled to be operational later this year.

“Accelerating America’s entry into the global natural gas market is a win-win-win situation,” Neverovic will say, according to prepared testimony. “America wins through job creation, economic growth and more revenues for government. Customers across Europe win by access to more competitive, clean-burning U.S. natural gas. And strategic cooperation of NATO allies would be strengthened.”

Although the hearing is the first for new Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Mary Landrieu, D-La., the panel has delved into the topic at least two times already since this Congress convened in January 2013.

“America should be an energy superpower in all aspects,” Landrieu said. “Real competition in real open markets drives efficiency and lowers prices for everyone. The last thing (Vladimir) Putin and his cronies want is competition from America in the energy race.”

Tuesday afternoon, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power will convene its own hearing on the issue, featuring testimony from Hungary’s energy ambassador, Anita Orban, as well as Deputy Assistant Energy Secretary Paula Gant, who previously worked for the American Gas Association.

The panel is focusing its attention on legislation offered by Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., which would expedite liquefied natural gas export permits, first by requiring approval of all pending applications and then by changing the current statutory standard to make approval nearly automatic for WTO countries — not just U.S. free trade partners.

Separately, the Senate is set to debate a $1 billion Ukraine aid package that could be a forum for robust discussion — if not outright proposals — on natural gas exports. A dispute over provisions to boost the United States’ contribution to the International Monetary Fund threatens to stall action on the measure.

The House Foreign Affairs committee is set to vote on similar legislation, with Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, planning to offer an amendment that would force a government study on how greater U.S. natural gas exports would affect Russia.

The export issue will get even more attention Wednesday, as the House Foreign Affairs Committee examines “the geopolitical potential of the U.S. energy boom,” in a hearing with Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm and Council on Foreign Relations fellow Michael Levi.