House votes to speed up LNG exports

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed legislation to accelerate natural gas exports, despite muted opposition from the Obama administration and even as the Senate rejected a more aggressive plan.

The bill, passed 277-133, would force the Energy Department to decide whether to grant licenses to broadly export liquefied natural gas to pending projects within 30 days after they clear an environmental review.

Under the Energy Department’s current practice, there is no deadline for those decisions.

Instead, the timeline is open ended, with the department waiting until environmental reviews are completed before it takes up applications to export LNG to countries that aren’t U.S. free trade partners. For onshore LNG export projects, the environmental reviews typically happen while the ventures are under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s scrutiny.

But it can still take months after those environmental analyses are done — and even after a FERC approval — for the Energy Department to deliver a final verdict on project’s export licenses.

Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, who sponsored the House-passed bill, said that’s too long, especially for projects that have been pending for years. The answer, he said, is legislation “cutting through the bureaucratic red tape.”

“With dozens of projects seeking approval, Washington is making it difficult for businesses to make the investment decisions needed to take advantage of (abundant natural gas),” Johnson said. “Given the amount of time that has already passed since many of the LNG export applications have been filed and their dockets closed, there is no more information to consider and no reason for the Department of Energy not to adhere to a deadline.”

Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, also said the current process “is taking far too long.”

The White House did not issue a formal “statement of administrative policy” registering its views on the House bill. But administration officials have been wary of changes.

“The Department of Energy has already taken steps to modernize the LNG export approval process and ensure applications are looked at efficiently and expeditiously,” said White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz. “We believe the process is working well and that bill is totally unnecessary.”

Similar moves are afoot in the Senate, with the Energy and Natural Resources Committee slated to hold a hearing examining a nearly identical bill sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.

But on Wednesday, the Senate voted 53-45 to reject a much broader proposal that would have put LNG exports to World Trade Organization member nations on the same legal footing as those destined for countries that have free-trade agreements with the United States. Current law requires the Energy Department to grant authorization for natural gas exports to those free-trade partners without modification or delay.

Sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the WTO measure was being considered as an amendment to legislation that would authorize the Keystone XL pipeline. Although his proposal won a majority of votes, it fell short of the 60 needed for adoption under a Senate agreement.

Advocates of LNG exports — including the companies building the facilities and the energy companies extracting natural gas — hope to push the legislation through Congress on a strong, bipartisan vote.

They already mustered a two-thirds majority in the House on Wednesday — enough to override a presidential veto, based on the number of members present and voting. It is unclear if they could maintain a veto-proof level of support with more House members voting.

Forty-one Democrats crossed party lines to vote with 236 Republicans in support of the legislation. One Republican — Rep. Chris Gibson of New York — voted against the bill.

Bill Cooper, president of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, said the House vote “sense a strong signal that the United States is committed to its role as an energy leader.”

But more than two dozen green groups warned that the legislation would force the Energy Department to move too quickly through its decision-making process, potentially putting both the public interest and the environment at risk.

Opponents of natural gas exports say they would unleash more greenhouse gas emissions, in part by encouraging more domestic production of the fossil fuel. Natural gas producers fewer carbon dioxide emissions than coal when burned for fuel, but methane lost in transporting and processing it can undermine those gains, critics say.

“Liquefying natural gas for export will result in devastating greenhouse gas emissions that could push us over the climate tipping point,” said Friends of the Earth climate and energy campaigner Kate DeAngelis. “True leadership means promoting clean energy both at home and abroad, not helping the oil and gas industry pad their profits.”