The flashpoint is a $3.8 billion Dominion Resources-proposed export facility in Cove Point, Md., on the Chesapeake Bay, which the groups are rallying to prevent as a burgeoning effort to prohibit exports of fossil fuels.
"The truth is that Cove Point, like other proposed [liquefied natural gas] export terminals, will raise U.S. gas prices -- harming virtually all Americans -- while becoming a historic catalyst for more fracking across the Mid-Atlantic and triggering a huge new pulse of climate pollution," wrote the 16 groups, which included the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Environmental Action.
The groups demanded Obama direct the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to perform an environmental impact statement for the project rather than the less stringent environmental assessment it decided to pursue last week.
"We call on you to reverse course on this plan and commit instead to keeping most of our nation’s fossil fuel reserves in the ground, in line with the recommendations of most of the world’s leading climate scientists," they said.
But the missive is coming amid growing Capitol Hill support for exporting natural gas for geopolitical reasons.
Republicans, with some Democrats, are pushing the Obama administration to expedite export approvals as a means to reduce Russia's grip on energy supplies in Central and Eastern Europe, a position it uses to wield political influence.
Those lawmakers have pointed to the situation in Ukraine, where the country's state of Crimea voted to join Russia over the weekend in a referendum the United States has refused to recognize. Russian President Vladimir Putin officially announced that it had annexed Crimea on Tuesday.
But export proponents argue the Energy Department's approval process is too slow. It must determine that shipments to nations lacking a free-trade agreement with the U.S. are in the public interest. It has given the OK to six such projects, with 24 pending.
Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., pushed the administration Tuesday to render a decision on the outstanding applications within 60 days and expand preferable natural gas export status beyond free-trade nations, while also conducting a strategic review of U.S. energy policies and establishing a joint U.S.-European Union initiative on energy security.
"[A]cting strategically to increase our natural gas exports will weaken Putin’s grip on energy supplies for Europe and Ukraine,” Warner said. “We’re suggesting a comprehensive, bipartisan approach that will have a positive impact in the near term and the longer term on the energy security of Ukraine and the EU.”
In the House, the Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Energy and Power is scheduled to hold a hearing next week on a bill that would immediately green-light all natural gas export applications on file at the Energy Department. The measure also would make it easier for future projects to gain approval by allowing all World Trade Organization members to go through the less-stringent review currently afforded to nations that have free-trade deals with the U.S.
Opponents of natural gas exports have argued that the U.S. won't be supplying Ukraine or the rest of Europe anytime soon, if at all. Just one U.S. export terminal is slated to go online before 2017, and even then much of the gas is likely Asia-bound, where the price spread is greatest.
Some Democrats also have suggested exports would raise domestic natural gas prices, undercutting a competitive advantage for U.S. manufacturers.
A December 2012 Energy Department-commissioned study by NERA Economic Consulting said marginal price increases would occur, but that natural gas exports were still a net winner for the economy.
Environmental groups aired the price issue in their letter, and said exports would incentivize hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that many of them oppose.
"President Obama, exporting [liquefied natural gas] is simply a bad idea in almost every way. We again implore you to shift course on this disastrous push to frack, liquefy and export this climate-wrecking fossil fuel," they said.