* Four ex-communist countries seek removal of import hurdles
* Governments urge action in letter to House Speaker
* Boehner says Obama should heed call
* Crimea crisis revives worries about dependence on Russia
By Jan Lopatka
PRAGUE, March 8 Four central European countries
have asked the U.S. Congress to make it easier for them to
import natural gas from the United States and reduce their
dependence on supplies from Russia, the Czech Foreign Ministry
said on Saturday.
The Visegrad 4 group including Poland, the Czech Republic,
Hungary and Slovakia is looking to diversify supplies to
eliminate the danger Russia could use its control of gas and oil
flows to exert political pressure on the former Soviet satellite
Supplies were briefly disrupted in 2009 during a dispute
between Russia and Ukraine, through which much of the Russian
gas is piped, and central Europeans fear they could be under
threat again due to an escalation of tensions between Russia and
the West over Russia's seizure of Crimea.
Last year, Russia's Gazprom supplied the European
Union and Turkey with a record 162 billion cubic metres of gas,
of which 86 bcm went via Ukraine. Gazprom issued a thinly veiled
warning on Friday that it could stop shipping gas to Ukraine
over unpaid bills.
The V4 ambassadors to Washington asked House Speaker John
Boehner in a letter to remove bureaucratic hurdles and make it
possible to start exporting U.S. shale gas to the region, the
Czech Foreign Ministry said.
"With the current shale gas revolution in the United States,
American companies are seeking to export gas, including to
Europe. But the existing bureaucratic hurdles for the approval
of the export licenses to non-FTA (free-trade agreement)
countries like the Visegrad countries are a major hurdle," the
In a statement, Boehner supported the call.
"I hope President (Barack) Obama will heed this call from
our allies to use his 'pen and phone' to direct the Secretary of
Energy to immediately approve pending natural gas export
requests and do everything possible to use American energy to
reduce the dependency on Russia for our friends in Europe and
around the globe," he said.
Obama does not need congressional approval to approve
applications to export natural gas. He often blames Congress for
stalling other policies, and has said he wants to use his
executive powers to do as much as he can without it. But White
House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Friday policy changes would
not have an immediate effect, and natural gas stocks in Europe
were above normal because of a mild winter.
"There is no indication currently that there's much risk of
a natural gas shortage in the region," he said.
Analysts have said that U.S. natural gas would not reach
European markets before 2016, and thus could not provide an
alternative in the current Ukrainian crisis.
European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said in an
interview published on Saturday he did not expect Russia to
switch off gas supplies to Europe over the Ukraine crisis.
"I don't believe it would be in Russia's interests," he told
German magazine Wirtschaftswoche
Central European countries have been building new gas
pipeline connections and expanding the possibility of reverse
flows to provide more flexible supply options, but are still
70-100 percent dependent on Russian gas.
Poland is building an import terminal on the Baltic coast
for liquefied natural gas (LNG), expected to be completed at the
end of this year. It has also supported domestic shale gas
exploration, but the results have so far lagged expectations,
while environmental protests have halted exploration plans in
the Czech Republic.
(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by