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.
If approved, the resulting export boom could lead to more 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 while raising concerns about 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 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.
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.