It is a painfully hilarious testament to the power and influence the federal government affords to special interests that bureaucrats can at once actively and aggressively promote exports in certain sectors of the economy (agriculture, anyone?), knowing full well that free trade is an enriching boon to the American economy at large, and yet at the same time try to argue with a straight face that they just can’t be sure of whether increased exports of natural gas are really in the “public interest.” And yet, somehow, that is the interminable debate that has been holding up the more than twenty pending applications from energy companies champing at the bit to be allowed to export more natural gas.

Currently, these companies are only allowed to export natural gas to countries with which the United States already has special free trade agreements, and certain mainly Democratic lawmakers, who may-or-may be more in tune with the interests of chemical, steel, and energy-intensive manufacturing industries than with the “public interest,” have been arguing that opening up the American natural-gas market to a wider pool of demand might — oh, noes! — cause prices to rise. What they conveniently fail to mention, of course, is that America has more natural gas than it knows what do with and the beneficiaries of those higher prices would be American companies and the many people they employ; late last year, the Department of Energy’s own study concluded that more natural gas exports would be a net benefit to the economy, and we’ve already been exporting heavily to Mexico, for instance, without these imagined adverse effects.

Newly-appointed Energy Secretary Ernesto Moniz has signaled that he’sgenerally a cautious but enthusiastic supporter of natural gas — perhaps an amazingly pragmatic admission that natural gas has been the direct cause of most of the success the U.S. has had at reducing carbon-emissions, a stated Obama administration goal — and on Thursday, he told Congress that his department will be moving “expeditiously” on the natural-gas export issue this year:

Moniz, who took office last month, told a House energy panel Thursday that he has been reviewing the issue and will soon begin evaluating applications on a case-by-case basis.

Asked whether he would make decisions on export applications this year, Moniz said “yes, absolutely,” but he did not give a more specific timeframe.

Moniz said earlier he would not decide on exports until he reviews studies by the Energy Department and others on what impact the projects would have on domestic natural gas supplies and prices.

I’m holding out hope that the administration will do the right thing and simply allow American companies to do what they do best (create jobs and wealth, that ol’ chestnut), but it needs to get done soon, and preferably without the usual assault of burdensome regulations and lagging timelines  — all of this hanging around is coming at a direct opportunity cost that our economy can ill afford:

Delays in approval of more natural gas export projects are costing U.S. companies millions of dollars a day and giving a leg up to rival countries also looking to boost exports, the chief of Exxon Mobil Corp said on Thursday. …

“It’s a very competitive marketplace. It’s not like people are just going to stand at our door like panting dogs just waiting for us to give this (LNG) to them,” Tillerson said while answering questions after an event at the Asia Society focused on Asian energy security.

Tillerson said he left a meeting with Moniz on Wednesday with no clear idea of when the company’s Golden Pass LNG project – a $10 billion joint venture with Qatar Petroleum – would be approved.

“I don’t want to start on this process if you tell me it’s going to take five years for you to get around to my application,” Tillerson said.