Recent data tell a troubling story about our nation's economic climate. In addition to the surprising 0.1 percent decline in quarterly output, there was the below-expected jobs numbers for January, which saw 3,000 manufacturing workers lose their jobs. Almost across the board, employment remains well below the heady levels of 2007.

Given that uncertainty, it's paramount that our nation's lawmakers focus their efforts on strengthening our economy. This week, lawmakers convened an official hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. That debate, over the future of natural gas development here in the United States, will be critical in helping bolster our nation's economy.

There is a growing green shoot in our stagnant economy that could provide an enormous boost to job creation, new business and economic output: shale gas. Natural gas development in this country has been a boon during rough times; during last year's State of the Union address, President Obama singled out the industry and predicted it would create more than 600,000 jobs in the coming decade.

Unfortunately, growth in the natural gas industry relies on the viability of a market. The reality we face today is that the abundant reserves of shale gas in this country have brought natural gas prices to historic lows, in turn slowing the development of those resources. If our country is unable to export these resources, we will be handicapping the potential for natural gas development.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee convened Tuesday to discuss the issue. As Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., outlined in a piece to the Hill last week, his second priority as that committee's chairman will be the future of liquid natural gas exports. Our economy cannot allow the economics of exports to be understated.

By allowing exports, the U.S. would open new markets to the energy we produce here, increase demand for it, increase our supplies and thus create jobs and opportunity here at home. The Department of Energy itself commissioned a study analyzing multiple scenarios of export levels, finding the net economic benefit to the country to outweigh any potential cost. Recent studies by Deloitte and the Brookings Institution have reaffirmed that conclusion.

Despite broad agreement from scholars, business leaders and bipartisan legislators to support the export of liquid natural gas, a new effort spearheaded by a handful of companies seeks to block the export of natural gas. Not only would that deny our country's long-standing commitment to free trade, it would have an overwhelmingly negative impact on our nation's economy. A recent study found that with the right policies enacted, employment in our nation's energy sector could grow by more than half a million jobs by 2020. Nearly a third of those jobs -- 166,000 -- would go to African-Americans and Latinos, and more than half would be concentrated in Louisiana and the Gulf region, where the Sabine Pass export facility is located.

For more than four years, natural gas has been a shining star in an otherwise gloomy economy. And the export of liquid natural gas could help reaffirm that development and become a real beacon of hope for our economy. It is our job to remind our lawmakers that America's commitment to job growth, and the president's goal of doubling exports during his administration, are increasingly dependent on growing natural gas development.

As the Energy and Natural Resources Committee sets out his agenda for the coming years, it's important to remember that businesses and consumers are both looking for leadership. Our country's vast shale resources are unique, and it's time our economy made the most of their potential.

Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.