Rep. Mike Turner has long championed legislation in Congress that would make it easier for U.S.-based companies to export natural gas around the world.
Among the companies that could benefit is Cheniere Energy Inc., where Turner’s fiancee, Majida Mourad, works as a lobbyist.
Turner, R-Dayton, said he had been working on legislation to ease restrictions on natural gas exports before he met Mourad in September 2013.
He also said his office has “put in place appropriate protocols” to prevent any conflicts of interest.
“My office has not taken action nor will it take any to benefit my fianceé’s employer,” he said in a statement to this newspaper.
Records Cheniere filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission show the company was following bills authored or co-authored by Turner last year, including the American Job Creation and Strategic Alliances LNG Act, which he reintroduced in January. Cheniere is not listed as a lobbyist on the bill.
Turner’s bill would ease restrictions on U.S. exports of liquid natural gas and greatly expand the number of countries where companies here could do business. Cheniere hopes to become the first company in the lower 48 states to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) in tankers to Asia and other global markets.
Experts familiar with the legislation say the bill could benefit Cheniere, though it would benefit competitors of Cheniere more, because the Houston-based company has already cleared regulatory hurdles the bill would tear down.
“Anybody who wants to be involved in the LNG export business, it will impact them in a positive way,” said Fred Enochs, an energy industry expert with the Berkeley Research Group. Enochs said the legislation would help Cheniere with any expansion plans it might have.
The potential for conflicts of interest has long been a concern of watchdog groups and others, and in the wake of the scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the mid-2000s, Congress in 2007 enacted more specific rules on the interaction allowed with spouses who are lobbyists.
A 2012 Washington Post story identified 56 relatives of lawmakers who had been paid to lobby Congress over the previous five years. In 2014, there were nearly 14,000 registered lobbyists and 535 members of Congress.
Craig Holman, governmental affairs lobbyist with the watchdog group Public Citizen, said Turner’s role in the bill and his fiancee’s work for Cheniere “raises red flags,” regardless of whether the bill directly assists her company.
“You’d think the lawmaker would want to avoid the appearance of undue influence” by not working on legislation that his fiancee has an interest in, Holman said.
Bill would boost exports
Under current law, companies wishing to export liquid natural gas must get approval from the U.S. Department of Energy, which determines if such exports are in the public interest. Approval is automatic for shipping to the 20 countries with which the U.S. has a free trade agreement, but there is a regulatory process for other countries.
Turner’s American Job Creation bill would make such approval automatic for all 161 countries in the World Trade Organization.
“This legislation is an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate international leadership, establish an active presence in the global energy market, and simultaneously retain huge and immediate economic benefits here at home,” Turner said when his bill was introduced.
The bill would also combat the efforts of Russian President Vladimir Putin to dominate the European natural gas market, he said at the time.
Cheniere already has approval to export a certain amount of natural gas to non-FTA countries but would need Department of Energy approval to increase its output. It also has investments in other companies that are still awaiting approval.
Cameron Chandler, an oil and gas consultant with Chandler Energy Resources in Texas, said Turner’s bill is one of several meant to ease LNG exports to more countries.
“It would help Cheniere to the extent that portions of their operation haven’t received the FTA approval,” he said, but it also “would probably work to Cheniere’s disadvantage, because all of a sudden the competition would be brought up to a level playing field.”
Messages left for a Cheniere spokeswoman were not returned. Mourad also did not return phone calls.
SEC records show that Cheniere kept watch on both the American Job Creation bill and another bill Turner co-authored last year. In an April 2014 report to investors, Cheniere lists several pieces of legislation that could impact the LNG permitting process, including the two bills sponsored or co-sponsored by Turner.
At the time, Cheniere was working to obtain an export license for an LNG terminal in Corpus Christi, Texas. The company has since obtained that license, but has other projects with licenses pending.
Earlier this year Turner co-sponsored a third bill aimed at expediting the approval process for companies wishing to export natural gas.
Turner took the House floor in January and urged his fellow lawmakers to pass the bill, called the LNG Permitting Certainty and Transparency Act, saying, “U.S. natural gas exports will foster a more dynamic and competitive world energy market, helping to curb the use of energy as a political weapon.”
Also urging passage was U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, who told House members that Cheniere has waited years to get approval to export natural gas converted to liquid form in its “billion-plus-dollar” plant in Corpus Christi.
The House passed the bill and it has been introduced into the Senate. Meanwhile, Turner’s American Job Creation bill is pending in the House Energy and Commerce committee.
Turner said he has been working since 2012 on issues of energy security to counter-balance the influence of countries such as Russia.
“My work in LNG has been defense and military alliance focused,” he said. “It originated with my close relationship with former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. Senator Lugar and I began working on this energy security initiative during President Obama’s first term.”
Cheniere Energy is a public company whose investors include business magnate Carl Icahn. On its website Cheniere describes itself as “among the leading companies in North America strategically pursuing the development of LNG (liquid natural gas) terminals.”
The company reported spending $2.6 million in 2013, $3.1 million in 2014, and $1.6 million in 2015 on its lobbying efforts. Individual salaries for Mourad and the company’s three other lobbyists are not disclosed in federal records.
Turner does not sit on any energy committees. Cheniere’s PAC and the company’s employees gave his campaign committee $6,000 last year, while oil and gas interests donated a total of $23,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Impact on Ohio
Turner isn’t the only Ohio lawmaker with an interest in LNG exports. The LNG Permitting Certainty and Transparency Act was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, whose eastern Ohio district is experiencing economic growth from natural gas exploration.
Turner and the rest of the southwest Ohio congressional delegation issued a joint statement in December 2014 heralding a $1 billion service agreement between General Electric and Cheniere, made possible by Cheniere’s ability to export to non-FTA countries.
Under the 20-year agreement, GE is supplying parts and providing maintenance, including Evendale-based technical support, for a Cheniere facility in Louisiana that uses GE gas turbines manufactured in Ohio. The Cheniere facility is one of the largest customers of turbines manufactured from the Cincinnati area, the lawmakers said.
The statement said one of the bills Turner co-authored last year — the Domestic Prosperity and Global Freedom Act — “would expedite the federal permitting process for LNG export facilities, boosting the domestic economy and providing more secure energy options for U.S. allies abroad.”
“This isn’t just great news for Southwest Ohio and the hardworking folks at GE; it’s great news for the entire country,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp. in the statement. “Republicans will continue to push a true all-of-the-above energy strategy that creates jobs here at home and encourages investment in America’s vast natural resources.”
Added Turner: “This agreement recognizes the innovative work taking place at GE and is a true testament to the quality of their workforce.”
But critics say increasing exports could hurt both consumers and the environment.
“Our analysis has shown that if all of the export terminals that are pending right now are approved, we could see a 50 percent increase in the domestic production of natural gas,” said Lena Moffitt a program director for the Sierra Club, one of the nation’s largest environmental advocacy groups.
The increased production — made possible by the widespread use of a process called hydraulic fracturing or fracking — poses potential risks to water supplies, according to the environmental organization. Shipping low-cost natural gas overseas could also drive up the cost for U.S. customers, the organization warns.
“That has ramifications for consumers down the line,” Moffitt said. “There are any number of reasons why Ohioans should be concerned about the proposals to export our natural gas to overseas markets.”
As a member of Congress, Turner is subject to a variety of ethics rules. However, the rules would become more specific once Turner and Mourad marry.
Under those rules, Mourad would be prohibited from lobbying members of Turner’s staff. Turner also would be restricted from sharing with her confidential information he receives as a member of Congress, or taking any action that would benefit her financially.
Public Citizen’s Holman said the rules are difficult to enforce.
“Hopefully they will abide by the restriction,” he said. “Obviously we rely on trust when it comes to a personal relationship between the spouses.”
Turner said he met Mourad in September 2013 at an event at the Library of Congress celebrating Ohio’s 210th birthday and honoring House Speaker Boehner.
Their engagement became public earlier this month, after The Hill publication included her in its 50 Most Beautiful People list.
Turner has not publicly announced a wedding date.
“My fiancée is a Toledo, Ohio, native and is looking forward to making Dayton her home,” Turner said in a statement.
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