By Josh Lederman
WASHINGTON -- Four Central European nations are urging the United States to boost natural gas exports to Europe as a hedge against the possibility that Russia could cut off its supply of gas to Ukraine.
Ambassadors from Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic made their appeal Friday in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. A similar letter was expected to be sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The letter from the four nations, known as the Visegrad Group, asks for Congress to support speedier approval of natural gas exports, saying that the "presence of U.S. natural gas would be much welcome in Central and Eastern Europe."
The ambassadors warn that the unrest in Ukraine has brought back Cold War memories, and that energy security threatens the region's residents on a daily basis.
"Gas-to-gas competition in our region is a vital aspect of national security and a key U.S. interest in the region," the ambassadors wrote in a letter obtained by The Associated Press.
Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, and previous disputes between Ukraine and Russia have led to gas supply cuts. Russian state gas company Gazprom has increased the pressure on Ukraine's new government, which now owes $1.89 billion for Russian natural gas, by warning that if Ukraine doesn't pay off its debt, there could be a repeat of 2009, when Russia cut off supplies to Europe because of a pricing dispute with Ukraine.
Recent advancements have made it possible for gas that normally flows through Ukraine to the EU to instead flow in the other direction, so that nations like Poland and Hungary could supply gas to Ukraine if Russia were to cut off its supply. But with gas supplies limited, the region is still vulnerable, unless the U.S. makes it easier to import American natural gas, the ambassadors argued.