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Senator Warns Against Economy 'Built on Cheap Gas'

The natural gas industry needs to be given a freer hand with less interference from the federal government, which shouldn't be limiting the industry's access to markets abroad, said U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND).

"I believe that we have a better future in America because of what your industry has done, because of the buildup of natural gas, but I believe that a lot of people in this town and in this Congress believe that it is the foundation on which we're going to build an entire new economy," Heitkamp told an enthusiastic Natural Gas Roundtable audience gathered at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, Thursday.

"And as much as I love what you do and I believe in what you do, I don't think that we should build an entire economy on low natural gas prices...We're only going to do this correctly if we do risk mitigation and we have long-term strategies for flattening out the price curve and giving you actual return on investment."

Buyers who have been able to obtain natural gas for $3/Mcf might be happy, but such low prices aren't sustainable for the industry, she said. And Heitkamp offered an ominous warning about the efforts of regulators and environmentalists to clamp down on carbon-based fuels.

"We've got huge regulatory pressures on coal, combined with lower natural gas prices, causing fuel switching -- a lot of it is not baseload; a lot of it's peak generation -- but when that is done and the stake is through the heart of coal, they'll come for you next."

Given enough leeway, the natural gas market will cure it's own ills, Heitkamp said. And opening the floodgates for liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports should be part of that treatment.

"You know what the solution is to high natural gas prices? High natural gas prices. You know what the solution is to low natural gas prices? Low natural gas prices...For people who say 'we're doing real well, and we want to keep natural gas prices low because it's good for manufacturing, it's good for America, and we want to keep it all in our country,' I say that's the worst strategy you could have for development of this resource. Because if you create an artificial marketplace -- which is really what I'm talking about, artificially restricting what you can do, either by not permitting buildout of facilities for export of LNG, or whether you just have a straight up ban like we do on crude oil -- you will not have an economy in this country that responds well to the global economy."

Restricting LNG exports makes as little sense to Heitkamp as restricting exports of her state's other bumper crop: corn. And the effects of U.S. approval of LNG exports, even with the time needed to build facilities and deliver the product, will be far reaching. "The statement of a policy that we are going to allow and expedite natural gas exports will have a foreign policy impact, even if it doesn't happen tomorrow." Washington's approval of LNG exports could help to stabilize the situation in the Ukraine and other parts of the world, she said.

What the oil and natural gas industry -- and every other business -- needs from government is a level of certainty, and Washington isn't providing that, Heitkamp said.

"One of the things I've learned over my history in public life has been predictability is everything. The ability to...look into the future and say, 'this is the regulatory environment I'm going to operate in; this is the tax environment that I'm going to operate in; I'm going to do my return on investment analysis today; I'm going to tell my shareholders that within these margins this is what we're going to be able to do,' and make the decision and you move on. Somehow we've forgotten that here -- that we're part of that equation as you move forward."

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