By Michael James Barton
The U.S. economy created a paltry 38,000 jobs in May - a mere quarter the number economists had predicted. Fortunately, the House of Representatives just approved a legislative amendment that could pick up the slack.
The provision, attached to a comprehensive energy bill, streamlines the regulatory approval channels for new natural-gas pipelines and export terminals. While America is in the midst of a historic gas production boom, the infrastructure required to transport and sell that energy hasn't kept pace. This lag is costing the economy hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions in economic growth.
The House's commonsense provision would help close that gap. Energy producers would finally be free to build necessary gas infrastructure. The economic benefits would be profound.
Thanks to the advent of new extraction technologies like hydraulic fracturing, U.S. energy developers have been able to tap into previously unreachable gas reserves in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Domestic production has jumped a stunning 50 percent over the last decade and is on pace to grow another 50 percent in the coming decades.
This rapid expansion has already worked wonders for an economy largely mired in near-zero growth for eight years. Natural-gas production increases have created high-quality jobs, fueled billions in growth, and provided businesses with a cheap, reliable, clean source of energy.
There's now so much gas, in fact, that domestic supply outstrips domestic demand. Americans will only consume about a quarter of the gas produced over the near future. For a nation that just a few years ago was described as having an energy crisis, this is a miraculous turn of events.
Foreign markets are eager to buy the excess. And American firms are eager to sell it to them; new foreign sales would generate new jobs right here at home.
But there's not enough physical infrastructure to enable this exchange because of regulatory uncertainty.
Regulatory delays have slowed pipeline construction. The total miles of domestic gas pipelines actually fell 2 percent between 2009 and 2015. This spring, the Texas firm Kinder Morgan surrendered to the regulatory bureaucracy and shuttered a $3 billion pipeline project in New England. The much-hyped "Constitution" pipeline connecting Pennsylvania gas production sites to New York consumers has been similarly smothered to death in government approval channels.
Worse still, when the gas does eventually get to the coasts, there aren't enough terminals to actually sell it abroad.
A federal law enacted in the 1930s - a time when a domestic gas surplus was about as imaginable as a smartphone - dictates that federal regulators must approve every new gas export terminal. Consequently, dozens of terminal proposals have been stuck in regulatory limbo for years.
With local and national politicians demanding the end of fracking, one suspects the endless regulatory process has become a backdoor ban. If the powers that be wish to stop fracking, then they should have to justify it to workers and families and have a vote, not hide behind a byzantine regulatory process.
The House's energy amendment attacks these problems. It requires the Department of Energy to expedite the permitting process for new pipelines and to speed up its evaluations of new terminal applications - in other words, do their job and justify their decisions.
These reforms, as simple as they may seem, would transform huge swaths of the economy. Natural-gas exports would accelerate gas-industry expansion and generate profound benefits for working Americans.
A fully operational gas-export sector would create 450,000 jobs over the next two decades, according to the consulting firm ICF International. These positions would be concentrated in the American heartland, including North Dakota, Ohio, and Illinois.
Arguably, the single most important task for American policymakers is creating more footholds into the middle class. Millions of Americans feel trapped in low-wage, unstable work and locked out of the American dream. They're desperate for solid jobs that can serve as the cornerstone of a family.
These new natural-gas positions fit that description precisely. They would be reliable and well-paid, with an average wage clocking in about $50,000 higher than the average of the overall economy.
Passing the House's natural-gas amendment into law is a clear win. Lawmakers should ensure it's in a bill that eventually lands on President Obama's desk.