"The U.S. Department of Energy's excruciatingly slow approval process amounts to a de facto ban on American natural gas exports that Vladimir Putin has happily exploited to finance his geopolitical goals," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday.
That built on calls from other Republicans on Monday, including Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's comment to a radio show that “we should be upping our exports of natural gas to this region and showing there will be real consequences to these kind of actions."
Few things, however, are that simple.
For one, it's not a matter of "upping" natural gas shipments — currently, Ukraine receives no natural gas from the U.S., nor does anywhere else in Europe.
The Energy Department must approve exports to nations that lack a free-trade agreement with the U.S. That process, to the chagrin of Republicans and many Democrats, is going slowly. The earliest shipments from the U.S. would come in 2015, with a larger supply leaving the country around 2017 and 2018.
The department has approved six such applications to non-free trade nations. It is weighing about two dozen others, though not all of those proposed projects are likely to get built.
Even then, those exports probably aren't heading to Europe. That's because the U.S. has its most significant price advantage with Asia — as such, domestic suppliers are striking multi-decade contracts with those nations, rather than with Europe.
"I think sending ‘our’ natural gas there is wishful thinking," Tim Boersma, a fellow with the Brookings Institution's Energy Security Initiative, said in an email.
Experts said it would be difficult for tanker-carried natural gas — cooling and "liquefying" it to ship from the U.S. could add about $6 per million British thermal units — to price out fuel that flows via pipeline, making U.S. supplies less attractive to Europe.
"[P]olitical challenges and economic realities may limit the extent to which U.S. [liquefied natural gas] can offer Europe a supply diversification solution," noted Kevin Book, managing director of consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners, in an email.
Still, some have argued that European nations might be willing to pay a premium for a more diverse energy supply. They say the Ukraine situation has shown there's a price to be paid for enhanced energy security, as Russia has used Gazprom, its state-owned utility, as a diplomatic powerbroker for years.
"Certainly they hate having all their eggs in one basket, and they're willing to pay a little more to have another basket," Bruce McKay, managing director of federal affairs with Dominion Resources, which is spearheading a natural gas export project in Cove Point, Md., told the Washington Examiner.
Proponents of ramping up the Energy Department's approval process say it would send a "signal" to Russia.
"Now is the time to send the signal to our global allies that U.S. natural gas will be an available and viable alternative to meet their energy needs," House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said Monday.
And Karen Harbert, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy, said such a signal would exert downward pressure on prices that would "have a calming effect" on instability linked to reliance on Russia.
But Boersma said those aren't valid arguments. He said other suppliers from around the world are likelier to plug Europe's energy needs, and that U.S. exports would hit somewhere between 4 and 8 billion cubic feet per day — an amount "that will not shock global markets," he said, when compared with large supplies coming online from Australia, Mozambique, Qatar and other nations.
"[T]he effects of U.S. unrestricted LNG exports are highly overstated," Boersma added.
Update March 5, 2014 at 1:20 p.m.: This story originally said the government has approved five applications to export natural gas to non-free trade nations. This has been corrected to six applications.