The topic has been brewing on Capitol Hill for a couple years, but the crisis in Ukraine has inflamed debate. At issue is the pace of Energy Department approval of projects to nations that lack free-trade agreements with the U.S., which Republicans have long said is too slow.
Now an increasing number of Democrats — or, at least, an increasingly vocal set of them — are making that argument.
Democratic export advocates, along with Republicans, say opening the spigot on U.S. exports would weaken Russia's influence over Central and Eastern Europe, as it is the region's main natural gas supplier.
"A quick and efficient approval process to responsibly export natural gas from our shores will also reduce the stronghold that countries like Russia currently exercise over their neighbors," said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Mary Landrieu, D-La., an oil-and-gas industry supporter whose committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on natural gas exports.
In the House, at least, there's a chance Democrats soon will be put on record about the issue.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee's Energy and Power Subcommittee is set to hold a hearing Tuesday on a bill from Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., that would immediately approve all pending export applications and make changes to the way the DOE evaluates future proposals.
The committee intends to fast-track the bill to the floor, partly because it would secure a win for Gardner, who is challenging Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., for his Senate seat.
But Udall and other Democrats are making their opinions more widely known.
The Energy Department's approval Monday of a seventh export terminal to supply non-free trade nations with U.S. natural gas offered a window into the spectrum of Democratic views on the subject.
On the one hand, some Democrats have prized natural gas exports as an economic winner. Constructing export terminals would lead to jobs, and sending natural gas overseas would generate revenues and raise domestic prices enough to incentivize new drilling.
"This newly approved [liquefied natural gas] terminal is a step in the right direction, but there is more to do. I will keep fighting to ensure the White House continues to prioritize the development and approval of additional natural gas export facilities," Udall said.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., joined Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., last week in calling on the Energy Department to approve or deny all pending applications in 60 days while concurrently launching a joint U.S.-European Union energy security initiative.
But other Democrats have exercised caution.
New drilling isn't a good thing, they say, when it would mean more hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that environmental groups say contaminates drinking water. Some are also concerned exports would raise domestic energy prices, undercutting a newfound competitive advantage for U.S. manufacturers.
"There can be no doubt that we have crossed a line into an era when we could be massively exporting America's natural gas, sending the jobs and consumer benefits abroad along with the fuel," Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said Monday of the Energy Department's new export approval.
Some Democrats have argued that exporting natural gas abroad wouldn't have an effect on Ukraine anyway.
That's because only one export terminal will be ready before 2017, and most U.S. supplies are heading to Asia because the cost spread is greatest. As well, Ukraine lacks a liquefied natural gas import facility.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., whose state is home to chemical firm Dow Chemical, which has urged restraint on exports, cited those logistical realities Monday as she called on lawmakers to prevent an external situation from dictating domestic policy.
"I am particularly dismayed that some people are using the very serious crisis in Ukraine as an excuse to rush through new projects to export our natural gas," she said on the Senate floor.