Alarmed by what she considers a fast pace in the Obama administration's approval of exports of natural gas, Sen. Debbie Stabenow is weighing whether to put a hold on the confirmation of the Department of Energy official overseeing the export policy, Christopher Smith, who has been nominated for a higher-level job at the DOE.
"I am concerned that they are not understanding that they need to have a pause in the new approvals on facilities until we see what impact the current approvals will have … how it affects manufacturing," the Michigan Democrat said this week.
President Obama nominated Smith to be assistant secretary of fossil energy in September, and Stabenow was the only panel member to vote against his confirmation when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved his nomination in December. Smith is currently principal deputy assistant secretary and acting assistant secretary for fossil energy, a post he has held since October 2009 and one that did not require Senate confirmation.
The Senate did not vote on Smith's confirmation as assistant secretary before year's end, forcing Obama to renominate him, which the president did Monday.
It's unclear when the Senate energy panel will vote on Smith's confirmation for a second time. Stabenow said she's weighing whether or not she will place a hold on him.
"I've talked to him privately, in my office, as well as hearing his testimony," Stabenow said when explaining why she voted against Smith in the committee. "And I'm not yet satisfied that he has a sufficient plan in mind for taking the time to update the DOE's information and reevaluate the potential impacts of natural gas exports on the economy."
She added, "At this point, I would just say I have a concern about it." When asked specifically about a hold, she responded: "It is possible."
According to multiple sources, Stabenow was either very close to placing a hold on Smith last year, or she already did place one on him. A spokesperson for the senator did not respond to a request for comment on that matter. Stabenow, a relatively low-profile member of the Energy Committee, does not place holds often on Obama's nominees. In fact, this may be her first one, but her office did not confirm that. With the clock on Smith's Senate confirmation process starting anew this year, so does this underlying intraparty tension.
"There is frustration based on the process of this resulting in threats to hold up Chris Smith," said an industry source and former congressional aide who follows these issues. "They [DOE] have enough problems in terms of getting Republicans to lay off; when it comes to the Democratic side, it's a little bit much."
Indeed, Republicans and oil-state Democrats, including Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who is poised to chair the Energy panel this year, complain that the Energy Department is not moving fast enough to approve export applications, which by law must go through a regulatory process to determine whether they're in the national interest.
The Energy Department has approved five applications to export natural gas to countries that are not free-trade partners with the U.S., which also happen to be the same countries that want American gas the most, such as Japan, India, and many European nations. More than 20 applications are pending. The administration has waited about two months between each approval, and it's right near the end of that two-month time frame, so the next announcement could come as soon as Friday.
Virtually all Republicans support exporting more natural gas, a fossil fuel the United States is producing more of than ever before. But some Democrats are concerned that exporting the product could create higher prices in the U.S.
Stabenow is particularly concerned about the impact that exporting natural gas could have on manufacturing. Dow Chemical, a global chemical company headquartered in Michigan, is one of the most vocal opponents of what its officials describe as "unfettered" natural-gas exports. Like Stabenow, Dow is getting more concerned about the pace.
"We've been largely pleased with the pace of consideration," said Kevin Kolevar, vice president of government affairs and public policy at Dow. "Over the course of the latter half of 2013, it has started to appear, though, that there is a bit of an assembly line approach, and that would concern us a little bit."
Stabenow wasn't shy about pointing out Dow's concerns in her comments at Smith's first confirmation hearing. She said the company has identified more than 100 projects that would use about 6 billion cubic feet of natural gas a year, which she says the Energy Department has not factored into its studies on the export issue.
"I think it's important to proceed carefully on exports," Stabenow said at the hearing. "I'm not opposed to exports. To me, it's a question of balance and to really evaluate as we go so we're not squandering what is clearly an American competitive advantage."
It's unclear what effect Stabenow could have on the Energy Department's process by holding up Smith, who is already doing his job in an acting capacity. But given that export permits are in the purview of the administration, this is one of the few things she can do to try to influence the policy.
Meanwhile, Dow is doing all it can too. Dow's president, CEO, and chairman, Andrew Liveris, also met with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Dec. 1 to discuss this issue.
Ben Geman contributed to this article.
This article appears in the January 10, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.