Cove Point, built as a natural gas import terminal, destined to be a natural gas export terminal.
Dominion
Cove Point, built as a natural gas import terminal, destined to be a natural gas export terminal.

Frackers already contaminate America’s groundwatermake people sickproduce radioactive waste, and contribute to earthquakes. Processing and moving the natural gas that they produce leads to nasty spills and deadly explosions. And cheap natural gas makes it harder for renewable energy to compete.

But, hey, at least almost all of that cheap fuel is being used by Americans in America, right?

That may not continue to be the case. The Obama administration is poised to rule on a slew of applications to export natural gas to other countries through hulking industrial terminals dotted along U.S. coasts. Over the weekend, Obama appeared to reveal his hand on the issue, forecasting that the U.S. would likely become a net gas exporter by 2020, reports The Financial Times.

According to the newspaper, administration officials fear that a restriction on natural gas exports, as is being sought by American environmentalists and manufacturers, would send a bad signal about the country’s support for free trade.

Environmentalists fear that allowing such exports would exacerbate the fracking boom, harm the environment along the routes of new natural gas pipelines, and cause pollution and industrial accidents at natural gas export terminals. (The manufacturers aren’t worried about any of that; they just want to keep the cheap gas to themselves.)

One such export terminal is planned at Cove Point, Md., along the shores of Chesapeake Bay and close to the vast Marcellus Shale natural gas reserves. Dominion, the energy company that owns the facility, received federal permission in 2011 to export gas through the terminal to certain countries. Now it is seeking permits needed to liquefy natural gas there before loading it onto tanker ships. Like other planned natural gas export hubs, Cove Point was built to receive imported natural gas, back before America’s fracking boom took hold, and now it’s being converted into an export hub.

The Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and other environmental groups jointly filed documents [PDF] on Friday calling on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to conduct a thorough environmental review of Dominion’s proposal.

From a press release issued by the groups:

The coalition argues the development of this terminal in Lusby, MD would result in major damage to the Chesapeake Bay, coastal forests, and the local economy, which currently support more than a trillion dollars in economic activity from the seafood and tourism industries. …

Major concerns include a substantial increase in ship traffic of huge — and potentially explosive — LNG [liquefied natural gas] tankers on the Bay and to Cove Point, as well as the risks posed by dumping billions of gallons of wastewater into this large and complex estuary, made up of a network of rivers, wetlands, and forests.

Residents of nearby Myersville, Md., meanwhile, object to Dominion’s plans [PDF] to install a large natural gas compressor inside their town.

The issue of natural gas exports is scheduled to be debated today during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. From The Hill:

The House hearing on Tuesday will touch on 20 proposals under Energy Department (DOE) review that would green light exports to nations that lack a free-trade agreement with the United States.

Such deals face more administrative scrutiny, as federal law requires them to be in the national interest. Democrats have urged the department to exercise caution, fearing approving too many will cause domestic prices to spike.

Meanwhile, energy-hungry foreign governments — including those in Japan and India — have lobbied the White House to promptly approve applications for exports.

Some lawmakers have accused President Obama of slow-walking the decisions. They fear the United States will miss out as countries such as Australia and Canada rush into the market.

So stay tuned on this one. The damage that fracking causes in America could soon be exacerbated, for the good of the world. And for the good of the energy industry.