Obama pushed to take sides on gas sales

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and 19 other Democratic senators have urged President Obama to oppose expanded natural gas exports, intensifying an intraparty fight that has stalled action in the Senate on an energy efficiency bill.

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“The United States has benefited from rising supplies and lower prices for natural gas since 2008. Thanks to lower natural gas prices, America’s manufacturing sector has created more than 600,000 jobs since 2010,” the Democratic senators wrote in a letter to Obama.

“We must ensure that we do not squander what is clearly an American competitive advantage right now for American manufacturers and for the American economy,” they wrote.

The issue of increased gas exports has divided the Senate Democratic caucus, pitting senators from manufacturing and Northeastern states against colleagues from energy abundant states.

Democrats who oppose increasing exports fear the sales could raise energy costs in the U.S. and hurt the manufacturing sector.

But others argue that increased exports could help the United States counter the influence of Russia. Last week, five Democratic senators sent a letter to Obama urging increased natural gas exports.

“We are concerned about the slow pace of processing non-free trade agreement (NFTA) liquid natural gas (LNG) export applications at the Department of Energy,” they wrote. “We strongly believe that the export of LNG can help the United States strengthen global energy security.”

Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Tom Udall (D-N.M..), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) signed that letter. 

In all, nine Senate Democrats have backed natural gas exports in the past. Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) joined a letter sent to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz last year urging him to speed up the approval of export applications to non-Free Trade Agreement countries.

The fight over liquefied natural gas exports has emerged as a major hurdle to passing an energy efficiency bill and, by extension, scheduling a vote to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said a vote on Keystone depends on Republicans allowing an up-or-down vote on the energy bill.

Negotiators striving to find a deal to move the energy bill say the sticking point is an amendment sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) that would require the Department of Energy to approve liquefied natural gas exports.

Reid does not want to vote on the measure, as doing so would expose a rift in his caucus.   

Republican negotiators say Stabenow is taking the lead in negotiating a prospective deal on amendments to the energy efficiency bill, which was introduced by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). Without a deal, the bill will die on the Senate floor, depriving Shaheen of an important victory as she runs for reelection.

Republicans are insisting on a vote on the Barrasso amendment, along with several others in exchange for letting the energy efficiency bill move to a final vote. Negotiators say an agreement on amendments is within reach if they can figure out what to do about the Barrasso proposal.

Stabenow stepped up her opposition by rounding up 21 colleagues to bring the issue to Obama’s attention.

They argued in their letter to the president that boosting natural gas exports would not help Ukraine or European allies achieve energy independence from Russia. Instead, they said most of the gas would go to Asia, where prices are three to four times higher.

“Integration of U.S. and Asian natural gas markets through U.S. exports could lead to further increases in prices for American consumers and businesses, which may fundamentally reverse many of the economic benefits that have led to the current surge in manufacturing job growth in the United States,” Stabenow and her colleagues wrote.

They argued that an increase in exports to Asia would “jeopardize America’s goal of achieving energy independence.”

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) co-led the letter.

The other signatories include Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Al Franken (Minn.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Carl Levin (Mich.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Jack Reed (R.I.), Shaheen, Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), and Ron Wyden (Ore.).

Republican Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) and Sen. Angus King (Maine), an independent who caucuses with Democrats, also signed the letter.

Manchin has worked behind the scenes to secure a vote on the Republican sponsored amendments to Shaheen-Portman, despite his public opposition to increased gas exports, according to a person familiar with the talks.

Shaheen also appears willing to allow votes on a variety of amendments to save her bill from collapse.

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