UPDATE 1-US lawmakers question wisdom of natgas exports

Tue Feb 14, 2012 5:24pm EST

* Markey-would stop FERC approvals until 2025

* Faces uphill battle in Republican-controlled House

* Sen. Wyden-"time out" needed to assess impact

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON, Feb 14 (Reuters) - The United States should bar exports of natural gas to prevent domestic prices from rising, Democratic Congressman Edward Markey said on Tuesday while introducing two bills in the House of Representatives to prevent shipments.

The bills, which would face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled House, come as U.S. regulators consider applications for exports of a glut of natural gas that has weighed down prices and caused some companies to step back from drilling.

In late January, natural gas futures prices plunged to a 10-year low of $2.231 per million British thermal units on the New York Mercantile Exchange, prompting some producers to announce drilling cuts. On Tuesday, natural gas was trading around $2.50.

One of the bills from Markey, an outspoken critic of the oil and gas industry, would prevent the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from approving any export terminals until 2025.

The other bill would prevent exports of natural gas drilled on federal lands, and would ban pipelines crossing federal lands from carrying natural gas destined for export. It was cosponsored by Rush Holt, a Democratic congressman from New Jersey.

"Low natural gas prices are a competitive advantage for American businesses and a relief for American families, and exporting our natural gas would eliminate our economic edge and impose new costs on consumers," Markey said in a statement.

"TIME-OUT" NEEDED-WYDEN

Just a few years ago, U.S. terminals were contemplating imports of gas because of high prices. But advances in drilling technology including hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have unlocked vast amounts of natural gas.

Americans need time to digest the abrupt "about-face" in the supply picture, said Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon.

"I think there needs to be something of a time-out to reflect upon the implications," Wyden told reporters on Tuesday, stopping short of saying he thinks exports should be banned.

Wyden said he wants to hear more from the Energy Department about what sort of price increases are foreseen with the granting of export licenses.

Under U.S. law, exports of natural gas to all but 15 countries that have free trade agreements with the United States must get approval from the Energy Department, and FERC must issue a permit for the export terminal.

The Energy Department has approved one export application from Cheniere Energy for its Sabine Pass terminal, and other companies including Southern, BG, Dominion and Sempra have also requested permission.

The department has commissioned a study of the economic impacts of natural gas exports, expected sometime this spring, before making further decisions.

Last month, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said exporting surplus U.S. natural gas could add as much as 9 percent a year to prices of the fuel for consumers and industry over the next two decades, if all the applications were approved.

Markey has also tried to block exports of oil that would be carried by TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline, but has so far been rebuffed in the House.

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