LNG:

DOE leadership question adds to unknowns on exports

A messaging war is heating up as stakeholder comments roll into the Energy Department around proposals to expand natural gas exports, but one concern with the process is not making it into writing: How will a potential leadership change at DOE affect the results?

In a call with reporters yesterday, John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute, said the organization was concerned that if Energy Secretary Steven Chu announces plans to step down, the turmoil of selecting and confirming a successor could move natural gas export questions to a back burner.

"That's a concern," Felmy acknowledged. "The president is committed to energy as a priority. ... He's committed to oil and gas in the debates, so I would hope for some really fast action if the secretary steps down."

Chu has not -- yet -- announced any such plan. But as senior DOE personnel have moved on to new jobs and Chu's counterparts at the Interior Department and U.S. EPA have announced their departures, many Washington observers expect Chu's announcement will come soon (EnergyWire, Jan. 11).

Departmental leadership changes typically come with a period of bureaucratic reshuffling and realignment. The question of how DOE should handle pending applications to export liquefied natural gas is partially pegged to a timeline: The department will continue to take public comments on a recently released economic study through Thursday and then will run a second round of comments for response to those initial inputs, lasting through Feb. 25 (EnergyWire, Dec. 6, 2012).

After that, DOE has said just that it will begin considering applications on a "case-by-case basis." A DOE spokesman did not respond to questions about how leadership change might affect the LNG decisionmaking process.

Yesterday, Mayor Dewey Bartlett of Tulsa, Okla., publicized a comment letter that his office said had just been submitted to DOE. "The process does not seem to have a set timeline for decisions or a sense of urgency," Bartlett wrote, speaking as one of a group of Midwestern mayors urging rapid approval of export projects. "In our collective view, it is time to bring a renewed sense of urgency to the approval process."

Bartlett was joined in the campaign by the mayor of Oklahoma City and those of Houston and Fort Worth, Texas.

API's Felmy said congressional opposition to exports, combined with the ongoing comment process, was a driver for the group's new outspoken approach to LNG exports -- as illustrated in a new advertising campaign and a series of recent press events (EnergyWire, Jan. 16).

"When you have both a senator and a representative start talking vocally about something that we feel shouldn't be an issue, then you have to start moving," said Felmy, referring to criticism from Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and incoming Senate Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) of LNG exports and DOE's economic study.

"You have to get the facts out," he said, "because I have learned in my 43 years in Washington that if you don't pay attention, bad things can happen, and they can happen quickly."