Some Senate Democrats are beginning to rally behind exporting natural gas on national security grounds.
Debate unfolded Wednesday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., tried to tie to a Ukrainian aid bill an amendment requiring the Energy Department to green-light natural gas exports to NATO members and Ukraine.
Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., ultimately said the amendment wasn't in the committee's jurisdiction, so no vote occurred. But several Democrats -- who have previously backed exporting natural gas -- voiced support for the thrust of Barrasso's measure.
"The world is hungry for America's natural gas," Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who has in the past supported expediting exports, said during the hearing.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., also a previous export booster, offered that he would support exports "in a limited way to support national security objectives."
The hearing served as a snapshot of an issue that's rising in prominence on Capitol Hill. House Republicans have pressured the administration on exports over the past two weeks, and officials from a handful of European nations have called on Congress to act.
These weren't the first protestations of support among Democrats for exporting natural gas to aid Ukraine and other Central and Eastern European nations subjected to the whims of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who supplies much of the region's natural gas.
Long a discussion over whether exports would raise domestic energy prices -- a December 2012 DOE-commissioned study said they would, but only marginally, and concluded that they would be a net economic winner -- the Ukrainian crisis has given the issue a more tangible element.
Republicans and Democrats alike have criticized the Department of Energy's pace of approvals for exporting natural gas. The department must rule that exports to nations that lack a free-trade agreement with the United States are in the public interest. So far the DOE has given six projects the OK, with another 24 pending.
While some Democrats are growing more vocal about exporting natural gas, there is still opposition within the party.
Menendez pointed out that Ukraine doesn't have an import facility to convert liquefied natural gas into its burnable form.
On top of that, only one U.S. export terminal is expected to be completed by 2017. The natural gas departing from U.S. ports is likely heading to Asia, where the price spread is greatest.
Democrats also raised the possibility that exporting natural gas would increase domestic energy prices, undercutting a newfound competitive advantage for manufacturers.
"We are seeing a mini-resurgence of manufacturing jobs in America because of the low cost of natural gas," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said at the hearing.