October 10, 2013

Anita Orbán is energy ambassador at large for Hungary. Vacláv Bartuska is energy ambassador at large for the Czech Republic.

The global economy is still struggling to overcome the effects of the recession sparked by the 2008 financial crisis. But energy — in particular, shale gas exploration — has become one of the strongest engines for the U.S. economy. U.S. natural gas production has increased by one-fourth in the past five years, according to the Energy Information Administration; it has created 600,000 jobs since 2009 and helped drive down gas prices for millions of Americans. Moreover, the United States is now in a position to export gas. This surplus creates opportunities for the United States to again be a geopolitical player in Europe.

While U.S. officials ponder their approach to Syria, the larger Middle East and Central Asia, they need look no farther than Central Europe and the “Visegrád Four” (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) to find some of the United States’ most passionate allies. Our countries’ commitment to the transatlantic relationship is unwavering. But we remain vulnerable to “energy diplomacy” because of our overwhelming reliance on Russian gas and oil. Nations in Central Europe import 50 to 100 percent of their gas from Russia. In comparison, Western Europe imports only 17 percent.

Our region has done much to modernize its inherited energy-transmission systems, which, until recently, reflected the Soviet era’s east-west supply routes. New pipeline connections and other technological improvements make the Central European energy infrastructure more flexible and more secure than it was even four years ago. Yet Gazprom’s monopolistic position in supplying most of our countries makes gas prices for millions in our region many times higher than in the United States.

The gas crises of 2006 and 2009 underscored that the Visegrád countries remain more vulnerable to supply disruptions than any other European nations. We have long recognized the importance of reducing dependence on a single source of gas and are eager to achieve real competition. The U.S. natural gas boom raises the prospect of a reliable trade partner for our region.

But as things stand, U.S. regulations make exporting gas cumbersome, unpredictable and strategically counterproductive. U.S. companies seeking to export gas to countries that do not have free-trade agreements with the United States are subject to lengthy bureaucratic procedures. Almost two dozen export license applications are pending; only a few have been granted in the past three years. This regulatory obstacle is the main bottleneck to increased U.S. gas trade with NATO members and Japan.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz pledged this summer to make decisions on additional export licenses by the end of the year. Meanwhile, several members of Congress, including Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Reps. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) and Mike Turner (R-Ohio), have taken the lead in recognizing this opportunity and advocate measures that would help to expedite liquefied natural gas exports to U.S. allies.

We believe this creates a win-win situation. Congress, working with the administration, can help U.S. companies gain new business opportunities while also helping the United States and its allies diversify their energy sources. Accelerating the export licensing procedure to allow increased sales to trustworthy, reliable foreign partners should be a policy that politicians on both sides of the aisle can support.

This is a historic moment. The United States has the chance to become a key player in international exports of natural gas. If Washington expands export opportunities, the results would include strengthened domestic production, enhanced global energy security, expanded market opportunities, lower global prices and stronger transatlantic alliances. By making strategic choices, the United States could demonstrate, once again, that it considers the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland close allies and start a new, even closer, chapter in bilateral relations.