Fueling the future

When Bill Cooper and his family loaded up the U-Haul and trucked their lives from Oneida, Tenn. — population 3,742 — to Washington, D.C., in 2001, only one image came to mind – the Clampetts. 

“We came from one of the biggest counties in the state of Tennessee in land mass and one of the smallest in population. We moved to Annandale — it’s almost like we were the Beverly Hillbillies, except without the money,” Cooper said, laughing,

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Now the president of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas (CLNG), a group that promotes natural gas exports, Cooper recently sat down with The Hill for an interview at CLNG’s Washington headquarters.

Cooper still speaks with a Tennessee twang foreign to the Washington area, but after more than a decade in D.C., Capitol Hill is now speaking his language.

“When I first came into town in September 2001, nobody talked about LNG [liquefied natural gas], nobody talked about wind, nobody talked about solar. So we have seen — ‘evolution’ sounds too slow to me. We have seen a fairly quick emergence of those alternate fuel sources having a presence in D.C. that they didn’t when I first got here,” Cooper said.

Cooper noted that policymakers and industry alike are touting the U.S. shale energy boom as a development that’s spurred a manufacturing renaissance and strengthened energy security.

“The fact of the matter is, the 21st century America is where we are today because of fossil fuels. We didn’t invent this stuff and sell it as snake oil, forcing it on some unsuspecting, unwitting group of consumers. It’s a product that does exactly what we purposed it to do,” he said.

It’s also a product on which Cooper was raised.

His father was a fighter pilot during World War II. Stationed in Germany, he was still there after the war when his commanding officer, a geology professor, decided to teach him about geology during their down time.

His father returned to Oneida after the war to start a window frame and door factory and later got into construction.

But those geology lessons fascinated Cooper’s father and led him to start his own oil and gas drilling firm in the late 1950s. By 1969, he had drilled the first commercial well in Tennessee — right in Oneida.

As a result, Cooper said he often got “geology lessons at the dinner table” while growing up. He started working in the oil fields with his father at age 17, and he’d come home to work during his summers off from school at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind.

“You just can’t describe the adrenaline, the thrill of working on a rig floor. There’s nothing else like it,” Cooper said.

Being the business owner’s son, Cooper wasn’t going to stay on the rig floor for very long, as he got exposed to the business side of affairs.

The industry knowledge he garnered became instrumental in his own career when he started representing small oil and gas drillers after getting a law degree from the University of Tennessee.

He set up shop back in Oneida, his hometown, for 16 years before taking a job as an oil and gas counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2001.

“We just kind of sold it as daddy’s big adventure,” Cooper said of the conversation he had with his wife and two kids about the relocation.

Cooper came into the 107th Congress to take the lead on the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002 and also spearheaded bills in the 108th Congress.

That was a time when Congress was able to pass bigger energy bills, he said with a hint of nostalgia.

Now the action on energy issues — at least for natural gas — is on the regulatory front.

The U.S. is flush with natural gas, thanks largely to advancements in drilling technology that have attracted criticism from environmental groups.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is credited with driving the boom. The drilling method injects a high-pressure cocktail of water, sand and chemicals into tight rock formations to access previously unreachable hydrocarbons.

The practice is controversial, bringing worries about groundwater pollution.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management released a draft rule last month that governs fracking on federal land, but green groups decry it as too weak.

Industry, contending that fracking is safe, has pushed back against Interior’s draft rule, preferring to let states regulate drilling.

Cooper said he engages with environmental groups — some of which want to regulate fracking more heavily, others that want to do away with it entirely — on an “infrequent basis.”

“The oil and gas industry is not opposed to doing things that safeguard the environment. … But we also understand that to grow an economy, to provide benefits to the citizens of the United States, requires industry. And industry requires the fossil fuel industry to be there,” Cooper said.

He noted that it wasn’t too long ago that CLNG was founded as an organization charged with promoting natural gas imports. Now, however, energy companies are looking to make investments worth billions of dollars to build natural gas export facilities.

There’s momentum from the Obama administration on that front.

The Department of Energy (DOE) approved a second project to export natural gas to nations without trade agreements (FTA) last month and signaled more such projects are in the offing.

Those deals require more scrutiny than ones to FTA countries, as they must show they are in the public interest. Nineteen applications for such projects remain in the DOE’s queue.

Some Democrats and chemicals firms have argued against too rapid an increase in exports. They say it could spike domestic prices and undercut U.S. manufacturing’s newfound competitive advantage.

But many others — Republicans, centrist Democrats and industry — contend the economic benefits are too great to pass up.

They say the DOE won’t approve all the proposals to non-FTA nations, and less serious applicants will withdraw their plans before getting to the pricey stage that comes after getting the green light from the DOE.

That — along with competition from a growing number of exporters worldwide — will guard against the unfettered exports that skeptics fear, they say.

That’s also the scenario Cooper ascribes to. He believes the many experts who have predicted U.S. exports of between 6 and 8 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day are largely correct. That, he said, will keep price bumps minimal.

Of course, that’s if the U.S. acts.

Globally, there are 63 natural gas liquefaction projects proposed or in the works, according to ICF International. As competitors grow by the day, export proponents argue the U.S. cannot waste any time.

Cooper’s job is to make sure that call is heard.

“This is not the first time the country has argued protectionism versus exports and that kind of thing,” he said. “Historically, if we look back over it, protectionism tends to lead to economic stagnation.”