Feds streamline reviews of natural gas exports

The Department of Energy on Thursday announced it will streamline its process for approving applications to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) by requiring environmental reviews at an earlier stage.

Under the proposed process, the department would wait until environmental reviews by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are completed before considering whether proposed exports are in the “public interest.” Energy must make that determination before gas can be shipped to countries that do not have a free-trade agreement with the United States.

“The proposed changes ... will ensure our process is efficient by prioritizing resources on the more commercially advanced projects, while also providing the department with more complete information when applications are considered and public interest determinations are made,” Christopher Smith, the Department of Energy's principal deputy assistant secretary for fossil energy, wrote on the department’s website.

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The department will consider the applications in the order in which the environmental reviews are completed, instead of the current order, which depends only on when applications are submitted, Smith said.

The change is intended to weed out applications from companies that cannot commit the resources to complete the environmental review process.

The change comes as Congress is applying new pressure on the Obama administration to expedite the review process for natural gas exports. Lawmakers have criticized Energy's policy of considering applications in the order in which they’re received, which does not take into account the commercial viability of projects.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) took credit for the change, saying her pressure on the department was what had caused them to change course.

“Today’s decision by the Department of Energy to streamline the permit approval process is a positive step forward to responsibly export America’s abundant supply of natural gas,” she said in a statement. “Increasing our natural gas exports will create tens of thousands of high-paying jobs here at home, position America as an energy superpower and boost the energy security of America and its allies.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also welcomed the action.

“The Energy Department is doing the right thing today by taking steps to protect America’s advantage,” Wyden said.

The new review procedure is likely at least two months away. DOE’s taking comments from the public for 45 days and will review them before making it final.

In addition to announcing the change, Energy released drafts of two reports on the environmental impacts of LNG exports that it said it would consider in the permitting process. One examines the impact of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques and the other studies the life-cycle greenhouse gas effects of exporting LNG.

Smith also said DOE is initiating a new study into the economic impacts of LNG exports. It would replace a 2012 study DOE commissioned and use more recent data.