* Closes out three-day Latin America tour
* Obama administration mulling natural gas exports
* Opposed by some U.S. interests
By Steve Holland and Isabella Cota
SAN JOSE, May 4 President Barack Obama said in
Central America on Saturday that the United States might be able
to help relieve that region's growing energy demands by
exporting liquefied natural gas, a move opposed by some U.S.
businesses and environmentalists.
At a development forum that ended his three-day trip to
Mexico and Costa Rica, Obama held out the prospect that surging
supplies of natural gas in the United States could be sold in
the area to help reduce its energy costs.
Obama's Energy Department is to decide in the coming months,
possibly this summer, whether to approve more than two dozen
applications for natural gas exports to companies in countries
that do not currently have a free-trade agreement with the
United States. It is one of the first big energy decisions he
faces early in his second term.
Obama made a case for taking the step. The United States,
riding a surge of natural gas production, is likely to be a net
natural gas exporter as soon as 2020, he said.
He said he discussed with Central American presidents at a
dinner on Friday night how U.S. natural gas can be used by the
region as a bridging mechanism to relieve its energy demands
until alternative energy sources can be increased.
"I've got to make an executive decision broadly about
whether or not we export liquefied natural gas at all," Obama
said. Helping Central America would be a factor in the
decision-making, he added.
U.S. companies that produce the gas feel the supply is more
than adequate, but some U.S. businesses oppose large-scale
liquefied natural gas exports out of concerns it will
dramatically increase the price of the energy in the United
Environmentalists have raised concerns as well about the
impact of increased production on the U.S. environment.
Participants at the forum, where Obama and Costa Rican
President Laura Chinchilla both spoke, said energy is a pressing
concern in Central America.
"The most expensive energy is that which is lacking, and
there are 1.8 million Hondurans today who don't have access to
energy," said Eduardo Atala, president of the American Chamber
of Commerce in Honduras as well as a member of the Honduran
Council of Private Enterprise.
Central America's electric generation mix went from 66
percent hydropower, 30 percent thermal and 4 percent renewables
in 1990 to 41 percent hydropower, 47 percent thermal and 13
percent renewable in 2008.
The region's demand for more energy is increasing. By 2030,
the World Bank estimates that Central America will need $25
billion in power sector investment to address increasing demand.
"We need cheaper, cleaner and more renewable energy in
Central America," Guatemalan President Otto Perez told Reuters.
"We can't ever be competitive if we keep the current
electricity prices," he added, saying he hoped to more than
halve his country's electricity prices.
Obama's remarks closed out a Latin American tour at which he
put economic relations on an equal footing with security
concerns about drug cartels that have been the main U.S. focus
in the region for years.
"The main message that I have is that the United States
recognizes our fates are tied up with your success," Obama said.
"We want to be a partner."
(Additional reporting by Mark Felsethal in San Jose and Tim
Gardner and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by Simon
Gardner and Gunna Dickson)