Finally, an Energy Issue Everybody (Mostly) Likes

Natural-gas exports could offer a rare chance for agreement between Republicans and the White House

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 26: U.S. Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) (2nd R) arrives at the Capitol for a cloture vote on the Keystone XL Pipeline January 26, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The bill failed to advance with a vote of 53-39. Sixty votes were needed. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Jan. 28, 2015, 3 p.m.

There might be at least one en­ergy pri­or­ity in Wash­ing­ton that both Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats back.

As they bick­er over the Key­stone XL oil pipeline, House and Sen­ate law­makers are tak­ing up meas­ures to en­cour­age more nat­ur­al-gas ex­ports. The White House has said the bills are un­ne­ces­sary be­cause they du­plic­ate ef­forts already un­der­way, but that’s not the same as a veto threat.

In fact, En­ergy Sec­ret­ary Ern­est Mon­iz has talked with Re­pub­lic­ans about how to craft the le­gis­la­tion.

Obama has not been shy about wav­ing his veto pen since Re­pub­lic­ans took the reins of Con­gress in Janu­ary, in­clud­ing a threat aimed at le­gis­la­tion the Sen­ate is cur­rently con­sid­er­ing to ap­prove the Key­stone XL oil-sands pipeline. But sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­an law­makers say the ad­min­is­tra­tion has been un­usu­ally will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate over nat­ur­al-gas ex­ports, open­ing up a po­ten­tial av­en­ue for ac­cord.

Speed­ing the pace of nat­ur­al-gas ex­ports has gained cur­rency on Cap­it­ol Hill amid the Amer­ic­an en­ergy boom fueled by frack­ing. The oil-and-gas in­dustry, flush with vast re­serves of nat­ur­al gas, has com­plained that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is mov­ing too slowly to ap­prove ex­port ap­plic­a­tions, and Re­pub­lic­an law­makers have taken up the cause. On­go­ing dip­lo­mat­ic ten­sion with Rus­sia, and Mo­scow’s threats to cut off nat­ur­al-gas sup­plies to Ukraine and oth­er places in Europe, have also spurred in­terest in the is­sue.

Wed­nes­day, the House ap­proved, 277-133, le­gis­la­tion that would speed up the clock for the En­ergy De­part­ment to ap­prove ap­plic­a­tions to ex­port li­que­fied nat­ur­al gas to non-free-trade-agree­ment coun­tries fol­low­ing com­ple­tion of an en­vir­on­ment­al re­view. Forty-one Demo­crats voted for the meas­ure.

Re­pub­lic­an Sen. John Ho­even of North Dakota, a co­spon­sor of sim­il­ar le­gis­la­tion set to be taken up in the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee on Thursday, said he spoke with Mon­iz last month about the bill, which would set a 45-day dead­line for the En­ergy De­part­ment to ap­prove or re­ject ex­port ap­plic­a­tions. The House bill calls for a slightly faster turn­around time by set­ting a 30-day dead­line.

“The lan­guage that’s in the … bill, that was the lan­guage I ne­go­ti­ated with Mon­iz; he was OK with it,” Ho­even said. “I think we have a good chance to ad­vance it, that’s why we’re go­ing to it next.”

An early test of Sen­ate sup­port for ex­ports hit a snag on Wed­nes­day when an amend­ment from Re­pub­lic­an Sen.Ted Cruz of Texas — a likely 2016 pres­id­en­tial hope­ful — failed by a 53-45 vote. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota was the lone Demo­crat to vote for the amend­ment.

The Cruz amend­ment, however, went bey­ond the lan­guage of the House and Sen­ate policy pro­pos­als, call­ing for DOE to ex­ped­ite ex­ports of li­que­fied nat­ur­al gas to all World Trade Or­gan­iz­a­tion na­tions, in the same way that ex­ports are cur­rently ex­ped­ited to free-trade na­tions.

And giv­en that the Key­stone bill has already at­trac­ted a veto threat, the meas­ure had not been likely to wind up as main vehicle for a po­ten­tial White House deal even if it had passed.

For that, Re­pub­lic­ans are look­ing to the Ho­even-backed bill.

The bill’s primary spon­sor, Sen. John Bar­rasso, R-Wyo., said Wed­nes­day that he is op­tim­ist­ic that the le­gis­la­tion will win White House bless­ing, adding that he has “met with the En­ergy sec­ret­ary” to talk about the is­sue and is “hope­ful we can con­tin­ue talk­ing.” New Mex­ico Demo­crat Mar­tin Hein­rich is also a primary spon­sor.

A spokes­per­son for Ho­even said that Ho­even’s of­fice has “had good com­mu­nic­a­tion with the ad­min­is­tra­tion” on the sub­ject of gas ex­ports, not­ing that the dia­logue has so far been “bet­ter than with top­ics like Key­stone.”

The White House has been coy, however. A White House of­fi­cial said Wed­nes­day that the ad­min­is­tra­tion does not “be­lieve that le­gis­la­tion is ne­ces­sary,” giv­en that “the De­part­ment of En­ergy has already taken steps to mod­ern­ize the LNG ex­port ap­prov­al pro­cess.” But the of­fi­cial con­firmed that lines of com­mu­nic­a­tion are open between the ad­min­is­tra­tion and Con­gress.

For now, Re­pub­lic­ans re­main op­tim­ist­ic. Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Bill John­son of Ohio, the spon­sor of the House-passed bill, said Wed­nes­day that he has “spoken with Sec­ret­ary Mon­iz about this is­sue dir­ectly mul­tiple times,” adding: “I be­lieve he gets it.”

John­son ad­ded that he doesn’t an­ti­cip­ate there would be any dif­fi­culty in iron­ing out a fi­nal ver­sion that both the House and Sen­ate could ac­cept.

Of course, ef­forts to speed ex­ports have not gone over well in all corners of Wash­ing­ton, and en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are already put­ting pres­sure on the pres­id­ent to re­ject any le­gis­lat­ive at­tempt to quick­en the pace.

“Pres­id­ent Obama said in his State of the Uni­on ad­dress that cli­mate change was the greatest threat to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. If he thinks that’s true, he needs to live up to his prom­ises and re­strict nat­ur­al-gas ex­ports,” said Kate DeAn­gel­is, cli­mate and en­ergy cam­paign­er at Friends of the Earth on Wed­nes­day.

And while Re­pub­lic­ans are hope­ful, even the most ar­dent op­tim­ists ac­know­ledge that the ad­min­is­tra­tion might not green-light the le­gis­la­tion.

“I’m very op­tim­ist­ic, and so far I haven’t seen any road­b­locks, but who knows what might hap­pen,” Rep. John­son said.

This story has been up­dated with ad­di­tion­al in­form­a­tion from the White House.

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