Republicans push Obama administration on upping natural gas exports
* DOE approved 5 LNG projects out of more than 20
* U.S. House panel in contact with 3 eastern European buyers
* Republicans sending "friendly shot across bow"
WASHINGTON, Feb 4 (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers urged the Obama administration on Tuesday to approve more ports for exporting surging supplies of natural gas, saying that fuel-thirsty countries could look to other producers if Washington does not act this year.
U.S. Representatives Fred Upton and Ed Whitfield, two Republicans, introduced a report that said the window of opportunity for U.S. natural gas exports will not remain open indefinitely.
President Barack Obama highlighted the role that natural gas has played in cutting greenhouse gas emissions in his State of the Union address last week. His Department of Energy, or DOE, has been considering more than 20 applications for companies to export natural gas to countries with which it does not have free trade agreements, such as Japan and India.
Republicans, however, are frustrated with the pace of approvals. The DOE has approved five applications since 2011, and the last one, for Freeport LNG, came in November.
"We are sending a friendly shot across the bow for DOE to take it up," Upton, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told reporters.
Approving more terminals could supplant the influence of other exporters such as Russia and Iran, strengthen national security and create jobs, the report said.
Iran has the world's second-largest natural gas reserves. The country has been slowly looking to boost exports of the fuel as its economy suffers from a slash in crude oil revenues resulting from U.S. and European sanctions seeking to cut funds to its nuclear program.
Officials from Lithuania, Hungary and Poland have been in contact with the House energy panel asking when U.S. natural gas would become available, he said.
Those countries and several more in eastern Europe are working with a Washington-based company to establish a lobbying coalition with energy companies, according to recent reports.
If the DOE "does not make major progress through the balance of the year" on approving applications, his committee would look at other options, including legislation to speed up the process, Upton said.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told Reuters last week the Energy Department has not put a hold on its consideration of LNG export terminals. The department has been methodically working down the list, he said.
"We are continuing to evaluate the next one," Moniz said.
Upton said his committee has not begun crafting a bill and the legislative calendar is too full for now, but a push could come later if applications are held up.
Ron Wyden, the Democratic chairman of Senate Energy Committee, has pushed for a "sweet spot" in natural gas exports where some shipments would be allowed but not enough to raise prices of the fuel for consumers.
Wyden is expected to move to the finance panel soon, and his likely replacement, Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, is considered friendly to LNG exports.
Environmentalists have begun to turn their attention to fighting LNG export terminals because they believe exports are not much better for the environment than coal.
Natural gas must be super-cooled to a liquid form before exporting on ships, an energy-intensive process. In addition, pipelines from production fields and to power plants could leak natural gas, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Whitfield said he did not think anyone realistically expects the world can meet its energy demands without fossil fuels like natural gas. (Editing by Amanda Kwan)