* Latest approval comes just over month after last decision
* Cove Point is fourth LNG export approval, third this year
* New permit a bellwether for steady approvals-analyst
By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON, Sept 11 The Obama administration on
Wednesday authorized natural gas exports from a fourth U.S.
facility, unexpectedly accelerating a review process that
would-be gas exporters and their allies in Congress had
criticized as too slow.
This speed at which the latest approval was reached - just
five weeks after the previous project - puts the Department of
Energy on a potential pace to rule on several more projects
before year's end.
But the permits are drawing concerns from skeptics of
unlimited exports who warn that the United States risks giving
away the nation's economic advantage of cheap and abundant
energy. They warned that the nation is quickly approaching a
threshold that could lead to a spike in natural gas prices that
would harm consumers and businesses.
Dominion Resource Inc's conditional permit for
liquefied natural gas exports from its Cove Point terminal on
Maryland's Chesapeake Bay came just over a month after the
Energy Department approved exports from a terminal in Lake
Dominion's was the fourth natural gas export permit issued
by the administration. It was the third permit issued this year,
following a pause of nearly two years in review of applications
to export gas to all but a handful of countries covered by free
Cove Point's conditional approval to export up to 0.77
billion cubic feet a day of natural gas, pushes the overall
amount of gas exports permitted to 6.37 bcf a day.
With domestic production of natural gas booming, about two
dozen projects are seeking to send surplus gas abroad.
Just a decade ago, many were worried that the United States
would have to import more gas to meet its energy demands. The
swift change in energy fortunes sparked an intense debate over
how the United States should handle its newfound gas wealth.
After approving Cheniere's Sabine Pass terminal in 2011, the
department took a nearly two-year break in its export review
while it commissioned two studies on the economic impact of
exports to weigh these concerns.
Elena McGovern, an energy analyst for the Eurasia Group,
said the latest permit "indicates a willingness on the part of
the DOE to continue steadily processing pending approvals,
rather than take a pause in order to review pricing impacts or
But a group of industrial companies led by Dow Chemical
has argued that unfettered exports will hinder the
resurgence of U.S. manufacturers who are currently enjoying
cheap gas prices.
America's Energy Advantage, the industry coalition making
the case against unlimited exports, called for the department to
immediately undertake an evaluation of the impact of its
decisions so far and to "clearly articulate in advance its
criteria" for determining whether additional exports are in the
The department acknowledged that after Cove Point, its
approvals had crossed the 6 bcf a day threshold that was
considered the "low" export scenario in the economic study it
commissioned to explore the economic impact of gas exports.
Analysts in a Reuters poll last month predicted that LNG
exports would hit 6.3 bcf a day by 2020, once several approved
projects are operating.
"The United States is now squarely in the range that experts
are saying is the most likely level of U.S. natural gas
exports," said Senator Ron Wyden, the Democratic chairman of the
Senate Energy Committee.
Before approving any exports above that range, Wyden said
the agency must examine the most recent data about the U.S.
natural gas supply and demand to prove that exports will not
have a "significant impact on domestic prices."
Wyden and other export critics have complained that the
study, commissioned by the Department of Energy and released in
late 2012, on the economic effects of sending gas abroad used
To address these worries, the department may pause its
review process around year-end to consider new information
provided in the Energy Information Administration's preliminary
annual energy outlook for 2014, which is expected in December,
ClearView Energy Partners said in a research note.
Still, the consulting firm said that the department could
approve three more projects this year if it continues to move in
Next in line for review by the DOE is an expansion of
Freeport LNG's terminal, followed by Sempra's Cameron
LNG project and Veresen Inc's Jordan Cove project.
The department has picked up the pace between approvals.
Nearly three months passed between decisions on Freeport LNG's
Quintana Island, Texas terminal and the Lake Charles terminal,
which was okayed on Aug. 7.
While defending its commissioned LNG export study as
"fundamentally sound," the department pledged in the Cove Point
order that it would "continue taking a measured approach in
reviewing the other pending applications."
Some boosters of gas exports said the administration should
move faster to approve pending applications.
"The United States has a narrowing window of opportunity to
join the global gas trade," Senator Lisa Murkowski, the top
Republican on the Senate energy committee, said in a statement.
Noting that Cove Point filed its application in 2011, she
called on the department to move with "timely purpose" to the