"Japan is a good example because they've closed virtually all of their nuclear plants," Rafuse says. "They have to start burning something besides atoms, and natural gas is the most logical thing economically and environmentally."
But while natural gas is certainly cleaner than fuels like coal—natural gas releases 44 percent less greenhouse gases than coal and 30 percent less than oil—with more development of shale gas and oil to export, experts warn that more methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, could be released. And because the climate equation is global, emissions reductions in Japan through reduced coal use mean little if methane emissions skyrocket in the United States, experts say.
Critics have also challenged the purported economic benefits of natural gas exports, arguing that shipping large amounts of the fuel could jack up prices for consumers and manufacturers. In testimony given before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in February, Dow Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris argued that unfettered exports of U.S. natural gas would have disastrous consequences for the economy.
"It is easy to see why everyone else wants our gas—to relieve the pressure they feel on their prices," Liveris said in prepared remarks. "And that is why unchecked gas exports will create a massive imbalance between supply and demand in North America."
But others, including Cunningham and Rafuse, aren't so sure limiting gas exports is the answer. In fact, there's reason to believe the export opportunity is actually much smaller than is usually perceived, mostly because there are other countries besides the United States—Australia, Canada, Russia, Mozambique—that are vying for gas markets in Asia and Europe.
Because export facilities are immensely expensive to construct, most companies require long-term contracts with customers. That means even with increased demand from countries such as Japan, the overall universe of natural gas demand isn't likely to increase dramatically fueling the kind of large-scale exports some critics say could drive up domestic prices in the United States.
"Even after the first of those contracts fades away, exports would probably only build slowly," Rafuse says.