By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A representative for Mitt Romney on Wednesday criticized Obama administration delays on whether to allow more natural gas exports, but stopped short of saying the former Massachusetts governor would speed the process should he become president.
The Obama administration, which must approve exports of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, to all but a handful of countries with free trade agreements, has approved one terminal for exports, Cheniere Energy's Sabine Pass.
It has delayed decisions on about eight applications for terminals from other companies, including Dominion Resources and Southern Co.
"We export timber, we export refined petroleum products, we export grain, yet somehow LNG is different and I'm not sure why," said Linda Stuntz, speaking for Romney, the presumed Republican candidate in the November 6 presidential election, at a campaign debate on energy at the Newseum.
In March the Department of Energy delayed an LNG exports study on which it will base the terminal decisions until later this summer. A public comment period will follow the study, which means a decision runs the risk of being delayed until after the election.
"You can't leave people hanging out there because they will go somewhere else. They will go to Canada. They will go to Australia," said Stuntz, a partner at the law firm Stuntz, Davis & Staffier who also served as a deputy secretary of the DOE under President George H.W. Bush.
Recently refined drilling technologies, including hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have led to a boom in U.S. natural gas production. Just years ago the country was looking at having to import massive amounts of the fuel, but now it could become a major exporter.
Many of the export terminals could be added to the more than 10 existing LNG ports, such as Cheneire's Sabine Pass, that were built to import the fuel before the fracking boom.
Europe and Japan are thirsty for natural gas and are willing to pay five times the current price in the United States. But many U.S. manufacturers worry a big expansion in U.S. exports could raise the price for businesses and consumers just as cheap prices for the fuel are drawing energy-intensive factories back to U.S. shores.
Dan Reicher, who represented President Barack Obama in the debate, said the administration supports the development of terminals to export the fuel, but "striking the right balance is not a simple thing to do."
Reviews of pending applications are moving ahead, said Reicher, a Stanford University professor who recently headed energy programs at Google and who served in the Department of Energy under former President Bill Clinton.
Stuntz said markets should be allowed to decide the wisdom of LNG exports. Allowing shipments could boost prices for domestic natural gas from current low levels, which could make U.S. LNG less attractive abroad and reduce the threat of a big price rise for domestic consumers, she said.
But Stuntz declined to say whether Romney would hasten the decisions if he got the chance.
"Honestly, it's too soon to say yet," said Stuntz.
Romney, who has been quiet on the LNG issue, believes it's important to decide one way or another so that businesses know how to invest, she added.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Dan Grebler)