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Natural gas: Should America export its surplus?

A new liquefied natural gas export terminal in Louisiana just received federal approval. But the demand for more export permits has some industrial consumers worried they'll pay higher prices.

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But other natural gas companies – those delivering the product to customers – are distinctly less enthused. The American Public Gas Association, which represents small, often not-for-profit gas systems owned by municipalities and other public entities, opposes all of the proposed LNG facilities.

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It's just not clear that there's as much gas in the ground as proponents predict, says Dave Schryver, executive vice President of the APGA, noting that shortly after the EIA released its LNG export in January, the agency released another study with a new, substantially lower estimate for the nation's shale-gas reserves.

There are 482 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in the US, the EIA reported in January, 40 percent less than its 2011 estimate of 827 trillion cubic feet. A big reason for the drop involved a revision of the Marcellus region, a shale formation beneath New York, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio that EIA now says holds 141 trillion cubic feet of gas – not the 410 trillion cubic feet it estimated the year before.

"We think given that EIA study and the uncertainty surrounding the amount of shale gas that we need to go slow on exporting LNG," Mr. Schryver says in an interview. "We'd like to see jobs created in a natural gas vehicle fleet and infrastructure. We feel that would be far more beneficial and better for our nation's domestic energy security."

Lawmakers are hearing from their big constituents, too. Since last summer, influential industrial customers have been laying political groundwork to argue their own sectors would suffer job losses from any policy that raises gas prices, wrote ClearView’s Mr. Book in a recent analysis.

"Intuition and logic may matter less than emotion," Book writes. "Energy prices are an emotional issue during the best of economic times, and high unemployment will make it harder for lawmakers to defend exports during an election year, if opponents choose to attack them."

Environmentalists, meanwhile, note that according to the EIA study, increased exports could set back plans to broadly replace coal-fired power plants that emit the bulk of greenhouse gases with far cleaner, natural-gas-fired turbines.

The same EIA report, they note, found that in scenarios with increased natural gas exports, most of the decrease in natural gas consumption occurs in the electric power sector. "Increased coal-fired generation accounts for about 65 percent of the decrease in natural-gas-fired generation," the report found.

Environmentalists, including the Sierra Club and Riverkeeper, have filed legal briefs opposing various LNG export terminal applications, arguing that exports of US shale gas produced by hydraulic fracturing means a lot more fracking to meet future demand – with unknown and long-lasting consequences for ground water and energy generation.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission “refused to consider the damages that will accompany additional gas production, willfully ignoring the health of millions of Americans who will be affected by reckless fracking," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement.

The next big shoe to drop on LNG exports is a big DOE study of the macro-economic impact of LNG exports. Initially slated to be released in March, it's now expected in late summer and could take longer for such a contentious issue.

"Before making any decisions on the pending LNG export applications, the department will take time to review the study results and develop a path forward for making individual public interest determinations," a department official says on condition of anonymity. "No timeline has been set for making those determinations."

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