House Republicans Add Pressure for Gas Exports

But leaders of a key committee are still mulling a legislative strategy for achieving their goal.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), Chairman of the Energy and Commerce committee, is interviewed in his office in Washington, DC.
©2013 Richard A. Bloom
Feb. 4, 2014, 10:25 a.m.

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.

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