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Can U.S. natural gas help Ukraine, Europe?

Dominion Cove Point LNG Terminal, seen Oct. 9, 2012 in Lusby, Md. on the Chesapeake Bay, was built to import several hundred tankers of liquid natural gas annually. CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti)

Steven Mufson
(c) 2014, The Washington Post.
WASHINGTON — Can American natural gas rescue Europe and Ukraine from the clutches of Russia?

Many lawmakers are pressing the Obama administration to use energy as a diplomatic weapon and speed permits for export terminals for liquefied natural gas (LNG) to ease Europe's reliance on Russian supplies.

But it isn't that easy. The cost of getting U.S. gas supplies to Europe and the lack of infrastructure on both sides of the Atlantic are major obstacles. And Asian customers are offering higher prices. Opponents of gas exports, including consumer groups and petrochemical firms, say that some businesses and politicians are using the Ukraine crisis as an excuse. Proponents complain that the Energy Department is dragging its feet.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee held hearings on the subject Tuesday. Lithuania's energy minister, Jaroslav Neverovic, testified in the Senate, and Hungary's ambassador-at-large for energy security, Anita Orban, testified in the House.

"What Central Eastern Europe and the E.U. in general needs right now is the additional volume of gas," Orban said in her prepared remarks. "The most viable option Central Eastern Europeans have today is LNG."

On Monday, the Energy Department gave conditional approval for the Jordan Cove Energy Project in Coos Bay, Ore. It would be the seventh granted by the department, which must approve exports to countries that do not have free-trade agreements with the United States. All have won approval since NERA Economic Consulting completed an impact study at the end of 2012.

A House bill would grant permits to all 23 remaining proposed LNG export facilities "without delay or modification."

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Mary Landrieu, D-La., is one of those leading the charge in favor of more gas exports. Although Landrieu's state has many of the biggest petrochemical users of natural gas, with many jobs at stake, Louisiana is also a major producer of gas from conventional wells and new shale formations.

Dow Chemical has loudly opposed large-scale exports. It complained Tuesday that Landrieu had drawn up a "one-sided" witness list that "unfairly skews the legitimate debate on this issue."

As President Barack Obama and European leaders meet, with energy and Russia high on their agenda, similar issues are at stake. A look at key points:

Q: Is U.S. natural gas cheap enough to replace Russian gas?

It costs about $5 per thousand cubic feet to liquefy and transport LNG and turn it back into gas. That brings U.S. gas prices close to Russia's under some contracts.

Prices are even higher in Asia, which is why many LNG export facilities have long-term contracts with customers in Japan.

Q: When could U.S. LNG exports arrive?

Years from now. The earliest gas exports won't come until late 2015 or 2016, and most won't get started until 2017 through 2019. Hungary's Orban argued, however, that U.S. LNG plans could "immediately change the business calculus of infrastructure investments and send an extremely important message of strategic reassurance to the region."

Q: Will U.S. gas stay cheap?

NERA's study for the Energy Department in late 2012 said that prices could rise between 22 cents and $1.11 a thousand cubic feet. (Prices peaked at more than $6 a thousand cubic feet this winter; prices for delivery next winter will be about $4.60 a thousand cubic feet.)

A new NERA study — paid for by Cheniere, owner of the Sabine Pass LNG terminal — found that the impact would be a slightly smaller $1 per thousand cubic feet. A NERA official said that falls within normal fluctuations.

A group of U.S.-based petrochemical giants say that demand from exports and new power plants could push prices higher. The group, called America's Energy Advantage, warns that the approved LNG export terminals would use up 13 percent of the current levels of U.S. gas production. It fears that would reduce the huge competitive advantage it has over European chemical makers and could imperil $125 billion of investments being made in U.S. plants.

NERA argues that there could be an automatic-price-stabilizing phenomenon. When U.S. prices rise too high, exports will drop and domestic supplies will rise, bringing prices down again.

Q: Can Europe drill for its own shale gas?

No country matches the U.S. advantages of technology, entrepreneurial spirit, relatively lax legal and regulatory requirements, and geological good luck.

"In relative terms, shale activity in Poland is by far the most active, though it's still very much in the exploration/ 'science experiment' stages," writes Pavel Molchanov, energy analyst at the investment firm Raymond James.

Ukraine has shale deals with Chevron and Shell, but neither one has started exploration. In Germany, there is no ban on fracking for shale gas, and so few permits have been issued that it amounts to a "de facto moratorium," Molchanov says.

Q: Can Ukraine find more of its conventional oil and gas?

There are exploration prospects in the Black Sea, and negotiations with major international companies were nearly complete in January. But with Russia in control in Crimea, those Black Sea blocks most likely will be claimed as Russian territory, and talks have been suspended.

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