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Senator Mary Landrieu's (D-La.) first hearing as Energy Committee Chair was disappointingly one-sided and failed to address the potential environmental detriments of exporting liquefied natural gas. Photo by Talk Radio News Service / Flickr / Creative Commons.

Gas Export Push Gains Steam, Bulldozing Environmental Concerns

The Senate and House Energy Committees call to fast-track liquefied natural gas exports.

BY Cole Stangler

The conversation on the Hill this week, however, was marked by a glaring omission—an actual back-and-forth discussion about the environmental impact of exports. The Senate hearing featured no mention of climate change at all—a frustrating oversight, no doubt, for many of the environmental groups who have raised the case that LNG exports would accelerate the effects of climate change.

Congress is inching closer to fast-tracking natural gas exports—a reform backed by the fracking industry that has found new momentum in light of the crisis in Crimea.

On Tuesday, the Senate and House Energy Committees both held hearings on boosting liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports. The House Committee focused on Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.)’s H.R. 6, which would streamline the Department of Energy’s export application process by fast-tracking exports to all WTO countries. (Current law expedites applications to a much shorter list of countries that share free trade agreements with the United States.) Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs tackled the subject, without devoting itself to any one of the many pieces of legislation that would ease the DOE’s export rules. Later in the week, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) plan to attach amendments to an aid package for Ukraine that would liberalize LNG export policy.

Supporters of these measures argue that boosting American gas exports would undermine Russia’s geostrategic influence over its U.S.-allied neighbors. Moscow’s state-owned energy company, Gazprom, currently provides Europe with 30 percent of its gas supply; Ukraine, meanwhile, gets 70 percent of its gas from Russia.

“The last thing Putin and his cronies want is competition from the United States of America in the energy race,” said Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.), presiding over her first hearing since becoming chair of the Energy Committee. “Tyrants and dictators throughout history have had many reasons to fear revolutions. And this U.S. energy revolution is one they should all keep their eyes on.”

The next frontier, then, for natural gas is overseas—an economic reality that took shape well before the Kremlin’s latest military aggression: Over the last decade, fracking and horizontal drilling have lead to skyrocketing gas production and cheap prices stateside. That’s caused a growing number of U.S. producers to consider shipping their fracked gas abroad, to places like Europe or Asia, where natural gas commands much higher prices. From as early as 2011, gas producers have sung the praises of LNG exports to Capitol Hill. Since then, they’ve earned the blessing of representatives from gas-rich states like Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana, Texas and Wyoming.

Today’s most fervent advocates of LNG exports are no strangers to the cause. But the specter of Russian imperialism has given these champions new impetus, and grabbed the attention of the mainstream press like never before. The editorial boards of The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, two of the nation’s three most widely circulated newspapers, both endorsed easing export rules this month, casting reforms in a geostrategic light. Readers of the New York Times, meanwhile, were treated to a column from Thomas Friedman calling for the U.S. to compete with Russia in an “Earth Race.”

The United States currently lacks export capacity—the first LNG export terminal isn’t scheduled to start shipping until late 2015, and others aren’t expected to be active before 2017 or 2018. But streamlining the application process now would likely pay future dividends. As such, the gas industry has welcomed the unexpected interest with open arms.

“We didn’t gin up the Ukrainian crisis,” Center for Liquefied Natural Gas President Bill Cooper told reporters on Monday. “We didn't gin up the idea that it ought to be connected in some way to LNG exports. But Congress did, obviously, and a lot of editorials, experts and geopolitical analysts have all jumped on that. We appreciate the attention that LNG exports are receiving, and if it does provide a catalyst to make something happen that heretofore has not, then we're going to be very happy with that.”

This week’s hearings would seem to indicate Cooper’s side faces little pushback in Washington.

With some exceptions—the House committee’s ranking member, Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), criticized the notion of “rubber-stamping unlimited LNG exports without any determination that they are in the public interest”—the three hearings generally featured support for boosting exports and speeding up the DOE review process.

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Cole Stangler is an In These Times staff writer and Schumann Fellow based in Washington D.C., covering labor, trade, foreign policy and environmental issues. His reporting has appeared in The Huffington Post and The American Prospect, and has been cited in The New York Times. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @colestangler.

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