Michigan-based Dow Chemical Co. and other manufacturers have criticized that study, saying it relied on 2-year-old data that doesn't account for increased demand for natural gas by manufacturers, trucking fleets and power plants.
Dow, which uses natural gas to power its plants and make products from plastics to pharmaceuticals, has argued against unfettered exports and said that could lead to price spikes that could harm the U.S. economy.
But John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute, the largest lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, said restricting trade to control prices "is bad for the economy" and could result in lower domestic investment and production, hampering jobs and economic growth.
"We cannot and should not build around a wall around United States," Felmy said.
Whether to approve natural gas exports is "a huge question that's facing the federal government right now," said Sarah Ladislaw, an energy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Expanded exports not only could raise natural gas prices, but also could hinder development of renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar power that do more to combat climate change, Ladislaw said.
"How do you put yourself on a pathway to reduced (carbon) emissions over the longer term while not killing this golden goose which is providing low-cost energy to the United States right now?" Ladislaw asked.
Natural gas results in fewer carbon emissions than other fossil fuels such as coal or oil, but still leaves a significant carbon footprint. Environmental groups also worry that more fracking could harm drinking water supplies or cause other problems.
Kevin Book, an analyst for ClearView Energy Partners, a research and consulting firm, predicted that the administration will approve some new exports, but nowhere near the 20 projects that are pending before the Energy Department.
"Everything we see from the administration suggests they embrace the idea of a small first-allocation" of LNG export permits, Book said. "They are looking for some subset to test the market."
U.S. officials also must consider competition from countries such as Canada and Australia, where new LNG export terminals also are being proposed. The facilities cost billions of dollars and take years to complete.
Only one U.S. license has been granted so far, to Houston-based Cheniere Energy Inc. for an export terminal in Louisiana's Cameron Parish. Proposals to build plants from Maryland to Texas and Oregon are pending from energy giants such as Exxon Mobil and Conoco Phillips, as well as Virginia-based Dominion Resources Inc. and Canadian-based Veresen Inc.
The Energy Department has promised to decide on a case-by-case basis, but must finish wading through nearly 200,000 comments filed on a study last year that concluded more exports would translate to net economic benefits for the U.S.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said officials should seek a "sweet spot" for LNG exports - allowing enough to spur drilling and increase gas supplies, but not enough to create export-driven price hikes.
Under the right approach, energy companies can "make enough money to continue producing, U.S. manufacturers have an affordable, stable supply of natural gas, and the environment is not only protected, but actually benefits from greater use of natural gas and lower CO2 emissions," Wyden said.
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