A Republican congressman introduced a bill Wednesday that would require the Department of Energy to expedite and approve exports of natural gas to Ukraine and other nations, in a bid to loosen Russia's control over energy supplies in the region amid the crisis in Ukraine.
The bill by Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, would require the administration to put natural gas exports to Ukraine, other former Soviet nations and members of the European Union on the fast-track in light of the Russian military occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea.
In the Senate, a similar bill introduced on Wednesday by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., calls for the expansion of the ability of energy firms to export natural gas to more countries around the world.
Poe’s announcement comes after top-ranking Republicans on Tuesday argued that by helping Ukraine and European allies end their dependence on Russian energy, the U.S. could ultimately loosen Vladimir Putin's grip on the region.
Poe also introduced a second bill Wednesday that would withhold all visas for Russian government officials until the U.S. certifies that all unlawful Russian military activity has ceased in Crimea.
The sudden attention on energy supplies stems from concern that Russia's robust oil and gas exports give it immense leverage over its neighbors. Ukraine gets about half its natural gas from Russia, while Europe gets about 30 percent from Russia.
The problem is a complicated Department of Energy permitting process, through which the secretary of Energy can deny applications to countries that don't have a free trade agreement with the U.S. According to Republicans, the secretary has only approved six applications in the last three-and-a-half years to such countries, and is sitting on two-dozen pending applications.
Part of the problem could be whether the industry is technologically advanced enough to begin boosting exports in the short term. Some also worry about the price impact of allowing these exports.
Energy Department spokesman Bill Gibbons said Tuesday that the administration is already helping Ukraine "in the area of energy security, energy efficiency and energy sector reform," referring in part to a $1 billion loan guarantee announced earlier Tuesday.
"Regarding specific Energy Department actions on LNG exports, the Department remains committed to an expeditious and responsible process," he said in an email. "We continue to make public interest determinations on a case-by-case basis, carefully considering economic, energy security, environmental and geopolitical impacts, among other factors."
However, House Speaker John Boehner called Tuesday for President Obama to take the "immediate step" of expediting the approval of these exports.
"The U.S. Department of Energy's excruciatingly slow approval process amounts to a de facto ban on American natural gas exports that Vladimir Putin has happily exploited to finance his geopolitical goals," he said in a statement.
Republicans also pointed to a recent House Energy and Commerce Committee report that noted that with greater natural gas exports, "the U.S. can supplant the influence of other exporters like Russia and Iran."
Also Wednesday, Sen. Dan Coats introduced a resolution that proposes sanctions and other measures against Russia to punish them for their invasion of Crimea. The resolution by Coats, R-Ind., calls for expelling Russia from the G-8 and closing two U.S. Consulate Generals, among other sanctions.
The House may also vote as early as Thursday on a bill to allow up to $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine.