- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A House panel Wednesday approved a bill to fast-track U.S. natural-gas exports as a way to lessen Russian influence over Ukraine and Europe, but the measure is exposing divisions within the Democratic Party and parts of America’s business community.

The legislation passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee by a vote of 33 to 19, with five Democrats breaking ranks and joining their Republican counterparts in supporting it. Authored by Rep. Cory Gardner, Colorado Republican, the bill sets a strict timetable that the Energy Department must follow when deciding whether to approve or deny liquefied natural-gas (LNG) export terminals. Supporters argue such projects are more crucial than ever, as U.S. fuel over time could free Ukraine and eastern European nations from reliance on Russian gas.

“It sends a serious signal to the world that the United States is ready, willing and able to help our allies,” Mr. Gardner said.

The bill would require the Energy Department to make a decision on natural-gas export projects within 90 days after the close of public comment periods, which are required for each proposal.

The department currently is reviewing about two dozen applications, the majority of which would have to be approved or denied within three months if the bill becomes law.

Red-state Democrats up for re-election this year — such as Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska — strongly back the idea of using America’s vast supply of natural gas both as a foreign-policy tool and a way to create American jobs. They’re joined by powerful oil-and-gas industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute.

After initially dismissing natural gas exports as a way to respond to the crisis in Ukraine, the White House in recent weeks has sharpened its rhetoric on the importance of “energy security” for Ukraine and Europe as a whole.

But organizations such as America’s Energy Advantage, which represents Alcoa, Dow and other companies and publicly-owned gas distribution companies, vehemently oppose the measure, saying that expanding gas exports will raise costs for domestic gas users. Many within the Democratic Party also oppose the bill on environmentalist grounds.

While the export bill is expected to pass the House easily, it faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid may confront a bipartisan majority that backs the measure.

Mr. Reid’s office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday on whether the Nevada Democrat supports the bill, or whether he’ll bring it up for a vote when it arrives in his chamber.

With the bill one step closer to becoming law, its opponents aim to shoot holes in the notion the legislation truly will help Ukraine, Germany and other nations to escape Moscow’s grip when it comes to natural gas. Ukraine gets more than half of its natural gas from Russia, while Russia is the single largest supplier of the fuel to Europe.

They also argue the legislation, if adopted, will chip away at America’s emergence as a global energy leader.

“This bill has it backwards, as it will advantage our overseas competitors while raising gas and electricity prices on every American consumer and business,” America’s Energy Advantage said in a statement. “That is exactly the wrong approach with our economy still stuck in first gear.”

Some Democrats also contend the bill will raise domestic energy prices and also could lead to the Energy Department being forced to decide on projects before all appropriate reviews are completed.

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