Feds act to streamline review process for gas exports

The Energy Department Thursday made final a new procedure for considering applications to export natural gas, which it said will streamline the process and ensure prompt considerations.

Under the new procedure, the Energy Department will not determine whether a proposed export terminal is in the public interest until the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) completes its environmental review for the terminal.

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This differs from the process Energy had worked under for the previous two years, in which terminals would receive “conditional” approval before FERC began its part of the review. Whatever process it uses, the Energy Department must determine whether exports to countries with which the United States does not have a free trade agreement are within the public interest.

“By suspending its practice of issuing conditional decisions ... DOE would better be able to ensure prompt action on applications that are otherwise ready to proceed,” the department wrote in a Federal Register notice released Thursday, due to be published Friday.

The Obama administration proposed the changes in May under pressure from Congress and the natural gas industry to speed up approvals to export liquefied natural gas.

Many members of Congress wanted more exports to counter the power Russia holds over its neighbors through control of energy. The recent boom in natural gas production also added to the urgency.

Energy said the new process would improve the information the department has when it makes its public interest considerations. It also would ensure that the department’s resources are focused on export projects that are financially viable, because their backers have committed to the costly FERC process.

Eight export projects have obtained conditional approval, and one in Louisiana has been fully approved. The Energy Department said those approvals are still valid.

When the new process was proposed, it got mixed reviews. Some supporters of natural gas exports said the conditional approvals helped companies obtain financing for their projects.

The department acknowledged the concern, but did not act on it.

“Nevertheless, the justification for issuing conditional decisions before completing NEPA review is much weaker in an environment where applicants are willing to commit resources to NEPA review even without a conditional decision,” Energy said in its notice.