Stabenow Considering Rare Hold — for Her — on Energy Nominee

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY MIRA OBERMAN (FILES) A picture taken on November 6, 2009 shows the headquarters of Dow Chemicals in Midland, Michigan. Amid pressure from the administration of US President Barack Obama, Dow agreed in September 2009 to accept responsibility for dioxin contamination from its Midland plant and get to work on a comprehensive cleanup plan under the EPA's Superfund program. The decades long battle over the dioxins have left the community divided.
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Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Jan. 9, 2014, 2:12 p.m.

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.
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