Steve Chapman

Besides, it's not clear that allowing sales abroad would have much impact on American purchasers. The Energy Department says that if exports climb, prices could increase by a quarter over the next five years. But that would leave them considerably below the levels that prevailed before 2008.

Our usual approach in matters like these is to let prices be determined by the free interplay of supply and demand. If American gas companies can get a better return selling abroad, who is the government to stop them? If a foreigner offered you the highest price for your house, would you want someone in Washington to veto the deal?

Some environmental groups oppose gas exports out of fear that more gas means more ecological damage. But utilities that rely on gas emit far less carbon dioxide than those that use coal. The U.S. shift to gas has already cut our greenhouse emissions to the lowest level since 1994.

As for any damage from hydraulic fracturing used to extract gas, exports are irrelevant. It occurs regardless of where the gas is sold. The right way to address it is by penalizing companies that contaminate groundwater or cause other destruction.

Behind the opposition to gas exports is the suspicion that shipping a vital commodity to foreigners instead of keeping it for ourselves must be a mistake. But international trade is built on people in each country producing and selling what people elsewhere want.

It's hard to argue that Middle Eastern oil states are exploiting us when they sell us fuel -- and that Europeans will also be exploiting us when they buy it. In reality, no one is getting hosed in either instance. The exchanges occur because they benefit both parties.

That's especially obvious in the case of natural gas exports. But some politicians have a gift for missing the value of trade. They call to mind H.L. Mencken's definition of a cynic: "A man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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