May 29, 2013

FOR MONTHS, some critics in Congress have loudly agitated against exporting natural gas to countries where the fuel is much more expensive. Recently, though, it seemed as if the Obama administration was beginning to do the right thing with these objections: dismiss them.

On May 17, the Energy Department gave a Texas company permission to export natural gas, basing its decision in part on a study it commissioned that concluded the country would benefit from expanding gas exports — in terms of its trade balance, incomes and economic growth. In every scenario the experts examined, those benefits outweighed the potential downside — exports putting modest upward pressure on natural gas prices. In fact, the authors found, gas prices probably would rise by some 65 cents per thousand cubic feet — about 13 percent above a business-as-usual scenario and far below what Americans were paying for gas only a few years ago. In other words, the effect on consumers would be relatively small, and U.S. manufacturers would continue to enjoy a competitive advantage relative to those in countries with higher gas prices.

Even so, the critics may be finding more success than that announcement suggested. Last Tuesday, the Energy Department’s new head, Ernest Moniz, said that he will conduct his own “review” of the available analyses — though he won’t commission any more studies — before issuing any more export permits, a score of which are pending before his department. He said that he had made a “commitment” to do so to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the chairman of the committee that considered his nomination and an opponent of gas exports. Even more ominously, Mr. Moniz said that, pending his review, “everything’s on the table.”

The International Energy Agency said this month that the world’s energy markets are shifting rapidly, to the great benefit of countries in North America that are ramping up production of natural gas and other fuels. The environmental effects of that production can be addressed with smart regulation, the imposition of which would ensure that gas lives up to its promise of burning much more cleanly than coal, the dirty fuel for which it naturally substitutes.

We are confident that any even-handed consideration will lead Mr. Moniz to the same conclusion that so many experts have already embraced: that allowing the country to sell its bounty to the world will leave it and its trading partners better off. We hope the new energy secretary reaches that conclusion swiftly so that no applications are held up while he accommodates Mr. Wyden.