The House passed legislation Wednesday expediting liquefied natural gas exports to nations that lack free-trade agreements with the United States, the latest development in a months-long Capitol Hill debate about whether to send the energy resource abroad.
Rep. Cory Gardner's bill passed 266-150, with 46 Democrats joining Republicans and two GOP lawmakers opposing the measure. The legislation would require the Energy Department to rule on applications within 30 days after developers complete a National Environmental Policy Act review.
The Colorado Republican has pushed his effort as a way to break the logjam of applications at the Energy Department. The department must deem the exports to be in the public interest, which invites more scrutiny -- as well as criticism from Republicans, Democrats and industry officials that it's moving too slowly. So far, the DOE has approved seven such projects, but 25 are pending.
The debate now shifts to the Senate, where Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., facing a challenge from Gardner for his Senate seat, is sponsoring similar legislation. His bill would require DOE decisions within 45 days.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., held a hearing on the legislation last week in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which she heads. She said she wants to move the bill through committee and is talking to Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., about floor time, but there's no commitment yet.
"Time is short. But I think his bill enjoys pretty broad bipartisan support," Landrieu told the Washington Examiner. "I think there is growing support in the Democratic caucus to understand that we can have our gas here at home and expand our economy, and export it abroad and support our economy."
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., an export supporter, said he felt the same about his party, though he noted some divisions still exist. The topic surfaced last week in the caucus' weekly lunch meeting, where Udall and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota, debated Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, who fear too rapid an export expansion would deal energy-intensive manufacturers a blow if domestic prices spike.
"I had a hard time determining like, in the room — OK, I know where I am, but where are others in the room? I'm not exactly sure," Kaine told the Examiner. "I would say I think there would be majority support in the caucus for the sort of limited export."
The limited export Kaine is referring to -- and the position he touts -- would be to allow exports to strategic allies. That's the conversation that has arisen since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, as President Vladimir Putin has wielded Russia's natural gas dominance as a geopolitical weapon in the region.
The Obama administration also has sounded a positive note on the ability of exports to handcuff Russia and assist allies. Officials have noted that U.S. supplies coming online have allowed large buyers to leverage better deals with Russia, and that even if U.S. natural gas doesn't reach Europe, it will free up flows from other suppliers.
Whether Udall's bill will see floor time, however, remains to be seen. As Kaine noted, he still had difficulty getting a headcount on who supports what in the caucus — that might make Reid skittish about bringing legislation to the floor, though with GOP backing it would likely secure the more than 60 votes needed to pass procedural hurdles.
There also are several bills competing with the Udall measure. It's also not clear if Republicans would want to give Udall — and for that matter, Landrieu — a victory when both are mired in tight re-election contests that could determine which party controls the Senate beginning next year.
"There are a number of bills out there," Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., himself a sponsor of natural gas-export legislation, told the Examiner when asked whether he would support Udall's bill. "I support the export of liquefied natural gas."