WASHINGTON — An Energy Department official declined Tuesday to give a timetable for decisions on exporting liquefied natural gas to some countries, frustrating Rep. James Lankford at a House subcommittee hearing.
Christopher Smith, acting assistant secretary for fossil energy at the Energy Department, brushed aside repeated questions from Lankford on how long it would take the department to act on export applications from countries that don't have free-trade agreements with the United States.
Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, and many other lawmakers have been pressing the administration to approve applications from about 20 countries or at least issue guidance on when and how the decisions will be made.
The issue has divided natural gas producers, who want a broader market for the huge supply of gas, and domestic manufacturers, who claim more exports would drive energy prices higher at home as the country is enjoying a rebirth in manufacturing.
The Energy Department released a study late last year concluding there would be net economic benefits from increased exports of natural gas. Smith said the department now is conducting an analysis of the study and about 200,000 public comments about exporting liquefied natural gas to countries that don't have free-trade agreements with the United States.
Exports to countries with free-trade agreements are approved automatically.
Lankford, the chairman of a subcommittee that oversees energy policy, said Australia and other countries with abundant natural gas supplies are quickly building export terminals and that the United States has a limited window to compete. But Smith said it would be inappropriate for him to give a timeline for the completion of an analysis.
Lankford shot back that he didn't think it would be inappropriate for the Energy Department to “decide when you're going to decide. At some point there's got to be something in your forecast — ‘We're going to decide by this point.'”
Smith said later, “Our job has been to come up with a standard which we're then going to have to defend when we write the order.
“So we're looking at a very wide range of factors that Americans care about — the balance of trade, creation of jobs, GDP (gross domestic product), the impact of prices on consumers and American families, the impact of prices on American industry, energy security, environmental issues,” Smith said.
But Paul Cicio, president of Industrial Energy Consumers of America, said liquefied natural gas exports “have the potential to slow or stop the manufacturing renaissance. A lot is at stake.”
Thomas Y. Choi, a natural gas expert with Deloitte Marketpoint, testified that increasing exports would have only a modest impact on domestic prices.