The United States appears to be rethinking its aversion to natural gas exports so it could help meet Ukraine's energy needs and weaken Ukraine's dependency on Russia for its gas supply.
The top U.S. energy official, Ernest Moniz, said at an energy conference this week that he "would certainly welcome" discussions with congressional leaders about easing the country's current natural gas export restrictions that limit sales to countries that are not free trade partners.
He said the conflict in Ukraine, where Russian troops are occupying the country's Crimean peninsula, is "obviously a very, very serious and important situation" that merits considering whether energy exports should play a role in U.S. foreign policy.
For decades, the U.S. has been a large energy importer. In recent years, however, with the advance of hydraulic fracturing energy extraction, the U.S. has increasingly headed toward energy independence. By some accounts, the U.S. could surpass Russia this year as the world's largest natural gas producer and by next year Saudi Arabia as the biggest oil producer.
Russia now supplies about 70 percent of Ukraine's natural gas, but debt-ridden Kyiv has fallen more than $1.5 billion behind in its payments to Russia's state-owned Gazprom energy company. As a result, Moscow says that starting next month, it is ending the one-third discount on the cost of the gas it is shipping to Ukraine.
Some U.S. lawmakers, including Republicans and Democrats, are pressuring President Barack Obama to ease U.S. energy export restrictions, but others are wary that sales overseas could boost energy costs for U.S. consumers.
House Speaker John Boehner, the leader of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, said Obama could strengthen the U.S. standing in Ukraine by approving the gas exports.
"If the president wanted to strengthen his hand, and help protect our allies in the region, he'd pick up his phone and use his pen and have the Energy Department approve these applications for these [natural gas] exports," he said.