POLITICS
01/29/2015 02:38 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2015

Al Franken Brings The 'You Didn't Build That' To Fracking Boomers

WASHINGTON -- With a bevy of fellow senators and natural gas industry experts angling to jack up profits by boosting gas exports, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) had a reminder for them in a Senate hearing Thursday: You didn't build that gas boom -- taxpayers did.

Natural gas prices have plummeted since 2005, as firms across the nation have aggressively deployed hydraulic fracturing technologies to extract gas from shale formations deep underground.

That boom started with the work of George Mitchell's Mitchell Energy and Development Corp., which proved in Texas in the 1990s that fracking could work.

It worked so well that now gas in the United States costs significantly less than in other parts of the world, and Thursday's hearing was laying the groundwork for U.S. producers to cash in with more exports.

It would spur the economy, create construction jobs, lower the trade deficit and give allies an alternative to seeking gas from Russia or Iran, proponents argued.

But Franken wanted his colleagues to at least reflect on what it would mean for the people who made it all possible -- the taxpayers.

"I want everyone here to understand who developed that technology, and who's responsible for that, and it's the taxpayers of the United States," Franken said in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.

"We're hearing senators talk about discoveries of reserves of natural gas in their states as if this is just a discovery that happened out of nowhere," Franken said. "This is because of the taxpayers doing investments in research into three-dimensional microseismic imaging, done in Sandia National Labs."

Indeed, while Mitchell is widely credited with sparking the natural gas resurgence, a number of researchers have pointed out that his efforts were made possible by decades of research that cost billions of dollars and were led by the federal government.

"This whole renaissance in natural gas is due to research done by the Department of Energy paid for by the United States taxpayers," Franken said.

His interest in making that point was not just to tout the overlooked benefits of public research. His state produces no natural gas. It does, however, have manufacturers and homeowners who use natural gas, and who likely would see prices rise if producers can ship more of their product overseas. From his perspective, making it easier to send gas to China and Europe only hurts his constituents.

"This does Minnesota no good whatsoever," Franken said, although he allowed that certain sectors of the economy would benefit.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) added another point that ran counter to the growing push for energy exports, noting that cheap gas gives the broader United States manufacturing sector -- which uses gas heavily -- one of its few advantages over enterprises around the world that have lower wages, few worker protections and lax environmental safeguards.

"I don't want to blow an advantage that this country has," King said. "I cannot understand this discussion that will inevitably lead to higher energy costs."

Supporters argued that there would not be a big enough surge in exports to raise energy costs very much, and that the benefits overall would be worth it.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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