Republican leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are urging President Obama to speed up his administration's approval of natural-gas exports. But without a legislative plan to accomplish their goal—at least not yet—the question arises: Will their pressure make any difference?
"We'd like to think the Energy Department can make major progress in the balance of the year," said Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton at a briefing Tuesday announcing a new staff report on the economic and geopolitical benefits of exporting more natural gas. "And if not, we would look at a number of options to try to, quote, help them achieve that goal in the future."
But later in the briefing, Upton conceded: "We don't have a draft bill in our pocket.… Our legislative calendar is short. We have a lot of things on the agenda, and to really marshal a bill through the House and Senate this year is somewhat difficult."
Upton described the committee's pressure as a "friendly shot across the bow" for the Energy Department, which is reviewing a list of more than 20 applications to export natural gas to countries that are not free-trade partners of the United States. It has approved five such applications over the past couple of years.
Upton did say that one option for legislative action could be to get a "time frame for them to take action," although he didn't elaborate on what that would mean or when and if that would occur.
Natural-gas production in the United States has ballooned in recent years thanks to new drilling technology that can tap into hard rock-shale formations in places like Pennsylvania and Texas. The U.S. was a major importer of natural gas up until a few years ago, and the Energy Information Administration predicts the U.S. will be a net exporter of natural gas by 2020. The power to decide how much natural gas is exported, which is governed by a 1938 law, lies within the administration. That leaves Congress mostly on the sidelines of one of the biggest energy issues confronting the country, even if the rhetoric suggests otherwise.
"This report lays out quite clearly the advantages in doing this," said Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield, R-Ky. "If the Department of Energy is not willing to act, our committee in Congress is willing to act to help expedite this. We do expect—hope—the DOE will start expediting this process."
The one piece of legislation pending on this issue doesn't seem to have the full support of Upton and Whitfield to move it through the committee. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, has sponsored a bill that would expedite natural-gas exports to member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which includes many Eastern European nations hungry for cheap U.S. natural gas. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., has introduced a similar bill in the upper chamber.
"We were thrilled to see [Turner] introduce this bill," Whitfield said, but he added: "We think it's an even broader issue than that. We wouldn't just confine it to one geographical area of the world."
Upton indicated it was important symbolically. "It's a signal holder that there is interest," Upton said.
Upton said he will be sitting down in the coming weeks with Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who is expected to become chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to talk about this issue.
"There is a real interest on both sides of the aisle to see this occur," Upton said.
Indeed, Landrieu is one of the biggest supporters of increased natural-gas exports, and the next application in line for approval at the Energy Department is in Louisiana.