WASHINGTON (AP) - A domestic natural gas boom already has lowered U.S. energy prices while stoking fears of environmental disaster. Now U.S. producers are poised to ship vast quantities of gas overseas as energy companies seek permits for proposed export projects that could set off a renewed frenzy of fracking.
Expanded drilling is unlocking enormous reserves of crude oil and natural gas, offering the potential of moving the country closer to its decades-long quest for energy independence. Yet as the industry looks to profit from foreign markets, there is the specter of higher prices at home and increased manufacturing costs for products from plastics to fertilizers.
Companies such as Exxon Mobil and Sempra Energy are seeking federal permits for more than 20 export projects that could handle as much as 29 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day.
A worker switches well heads during a short pause in the water pumping phase at the site of a natural gas hydraulic fracturing and extraction operation outside Rifle, Colo.
If approved, the resulting export boom could lead to further increases in hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique also known as fracking. It has allowed companies to gain access to huge stores of natural gas underneath states from Colorado to New York, but raised widespread concerns about alleged groundwater contamination and even earthquakes.
The drilling boom has helped boost U.S. natural gas production by one-third since 2005, with production reaching an all-time high of 25.3 trillion cubic feet last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In recent months, however, production has begun to level off as the glut of natural gas keeps U.S. prices down. In response, producers have begun pushing to export the fuel to Europe and Asia, where prices are far higher.
Approval of all the projects currently under review by the Energy Department could result in the export of more than 40 percent of current U.S. production of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, which is gas that's been converted to liquid form to make it easier to store or transport.
The prospect of a major expansion of U.S. gas exports has tantalized business groups and lawmakers from both parties, and they're urging the Obama administration to move faster to approve the projects as a way to create thousands of jobs and spur economic growth. Increased exports also would help offset the nation's enormous trade deficit.
But consumer groups and some manufacturers that use natural gas oppose expanded exports, saying they could drive up domestic prices and make manufacturing more expensive. Many environmental groups also oppose LNG exports because of fears that increased drilling could lead to environmental damage.
"Exporting natural gas will have serious implications for public health, the environment and climate change," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. "Building these terminals means lots of new fracking, and more fracking means more risks for Americans."
Bill Cooper, president of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, an industry group, called natural gas a safe, clean-burning alternative to coal and oil.
"LNG exports are a huge opportunity for the United States economy, our workers and our geopolitical relationships" with countries such as Japan that are seeking to import natural gas, Cooper said. "LNG exports will create jobs, increase government revenue and benefit consumers."
The administration has not said whether it will approve the projects. The issue is among the main challenges for Ernest Moniz, President Barack Obama's nominee to be energy secretary.
Federal law requires the Energy Department to determine that projects are in the public interest before granting export permits to countries that do not have free-trade agreements with the U.S.
Moniz, a physics professor and former top officials at the department in the Clinton administration, is widely seen as sympathetic to the natural gas industry. At a Senate hearing last month, he called the "stunning increase" in natural gas production a "revolution" that has led to reduced emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that cause global warming.
A recent study commissioned by the department concluded that exporting natural gas would benefit the U.S. economy even if it leads to higher domestic prices for the fuel, as is likely.
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.