- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2014

The Obama administration on Monday downplayed the notion that American natural gas exports could immediately lessen Russian leverage over Ukraine and Europe, but the idea is very much alive and gaining momentum on Capitol Hill.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee plans to fast-track legislation expediting the federal approval process for liquefied natural gas export terminals, two dozen of which remain trapped in lengthy reviews inside the Energy Department. A hearing on the measure, introduced just last week, will be held later this month, committee sources said.

Republicans long have prodded the White House to speed up the process and take advantage of America’s abundance of natural gas by selling to allies in Europe and elsewhere. The issue has come into the spotlight in recent weeks as Russia strengthens its grip on the strategic Crimean peninsula, which will vote Sunday on seceding from Ukraine.

Russia provides more than half of Ukraine’s natural gas and about 30 percent of Europe’s supply, giving it key power over both its neighbor and nations such as Germany that the U.S. must have on board to enact meaningful economic sanctions against Moscow.

But the White House brushed off the notion that U.S. gas exports could have any impact on the current crisis in Ukraine.

“Any actions the United States can take with our own exports and how that would affect markets — that’s a complicated process and more of a long-term proposition,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. “But we certainly take the energy security of our friends in Europe very seriously.”

Mr. Carney also disputed the notion that Russia would cut off gas to Ukraine or Europe, saying Moscow must retain them as customers.

While it’s true that changing the global energy landscape would take years, the promise of American natural gas, even if its delivery is years off, would be reassuring, said Steven Bucci, director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

“They wouldn’t have to be worried about Vladimir Putin turning the spigot the wrong way and cutting them off,” he said. “It would tell all these European countries we’re going to help you not be dependent on Russia, so they can’t hold this big stick over you anymore.”

A coalition of nations in central and eastern Europe, eager to end reliance on Russian fuel, is urging the U.S. to send a signal to Moscow that its days of using fuel as leverage are numbered.

“Our dependence on natural gas imports from a single supplier is still anywhere between 70 percent to 100 percent in the region … it is not hard to see that energy security remains to be a critical aspect of the region’s geostrategic stability and independence,” reads a joint letter that the ambassadors of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia sent last week to House Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

“The presence of U.S. natural gas would be much welcome in central and eastern Europe, and congressional action to expedite LNG exports to American’s allies would come at a critically important time for the region,” the ambassadors wrote.

The House legislation — the Domestic Prosperity and Global Freedom Act — would eliminate America’s “self-imposed restrictions” on exporting natural gas, now in abundance thanks to the perfection of the drilling technique known as fracking and the discoveries of vast fuel deposits in places such as the Marcellus Shale.

Energy companies have expressed a keen interest in selling the fuel to Europe and elsewhere, but federal rules and regulations require that any gas export project must be found to be in the nation’s best interest. The key component of that equation is whether exports would lower domestic supply and, in turn, raise prices in the U.S.

The administration thus far has approved six export terminals; 24 remain under consideration.

The House bill states that “any application for authorization to export natural gas … shall be granted without modification or delay.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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