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Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February of last year and disrupted energy markets, the Biden administration has been eager to ramp up U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), in an effort to free Europe from its dependence on Russian gas.
But that undercuts the president’s commitment to reduce the pollution causing climate change and to keep energy prices low for American consumers, according to consumer advocates at organizations such as Public Citizen and leading environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council.
Those competing priorities have resulted in debate over whether federal regulators should allow more exports of natural gas, and whether to approve the construction of terminals for that purpose. Last year, congressional Republicans including Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida introduced legislation to expedite approval of LNG export terminals.
Environmental and consumer advocacy groups, meanwhile, are asking the Department of Energy (DOE) to do the opposite, and to adopt a more rigorous process for reviewing gas export permit applications. In October, a coalition of consumer watchdogs led by Public Citizen sent a petition to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm arguing that U.S. gas consumers are being subjected to price shocks due to global supply disruptions, such as skyrocketing prices after Russia invaded Ukraine.
“If we had zero LNG exports, we would not see variability in gas prices,” Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen's energy program, recently told Yahoo News. “But LNG exports introduce global volatility into domestic markets.”
“The Department gives short shrift to climate,” a collection of environmental organizations led by the Sierra Club complained in a companion petition, arguing that increasing gas exports will increase the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
So far, the administration is coming down squarely on the side of encouraging exports.
“With respect to LNG, we know that our liquefied natural gas exports have been a significant help to our allies,” Granholm said, in response to a question from Yahoo News during a Jan. 23 press conference. “We are fortunate that we have an abundance, obviously, of natural gas in this country. Our prices are low. But during times of challenge, we want to help our allies as well.”
When burned, gas creates roughly half of the carbon dioxide emissions that coal does. But there are no gas pipelines across the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, so selling gas to Asia or Europe requires freezing it into a liquid, shipping it across the water, and heating it up to regasify it at its destination. That energy-intensive process is “effectively doubling the climate impact of each unit of energy created from gas transported overseas,” according to a December 2020 study from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Add in the leakage of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, at U.S. gas wells and pipelines — which recent studies have shown is widespread and worse than the federal government assumes — and LNG creates almost as much climate pollution as coal, the NRDC found.
Climate activists also warn that spending billions of dollars on fossil fuel infrastructure with a projected multi-decade lifespan locks in dependence on fossil fuels, when Europe and Asia should be focusing on switching to renewable energy. (In the wake of Russia’s invasion, the European Union launched an ambitious effort to increase renewable development.)
“If the LNG export industry expands as projected, it is likely to make it nearly impossible to keep global temperatures from increasing above the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold for catastrophic climate impacts,” the NRDC concluded in its report.
Spurred by the bounty of domestic production unleashed by hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, exports of gas skyrocketed from 1.14 trillion cubic feet in 2010 to 6.65 trillion cubic feet in 2021, when they accounted for 10% of U.S. gas production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In the first nine months of 2022, more than 15% of U.S. gas was exported. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that LNG exports will increase by 13% this year.
“We want to make sure it’s the cleanest natural gas,” Granholm said at the recent press conference, going on to note the Biden administration’s support for carbon capture and storage, or CCS, which takes carbon dioxide emissions from the smokestack and compresses them underground, as well as its initiatives to reduce methane leakage.
"We are committed to a managed and equitable transition to clean power," a DOE spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement to Yahoo News. "Fossil fuels will be in the energy mix during this transition, which is why DOE is investing in advanced technologies" like CCS.
Climate-conscious Republicans echo that message. “The more you control methane, the more viable the argument is that we should be exporting natural gas,” Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, who founded the Conservative Climate Caucus, told Yahoo News in a phone interview in November.
Historically, most U.S. gas exports went to Asian countries such as China, South Korea and Japan, but last year, chasing sky-high prices in Europe, the amount going to Europe doubled. The DOE is currently considering a few dozen applications to export gas. While Granholm argues that this will help U.S. allies in Europe stand up to Russia, there is no requirement that the gas go there, as opposed to merely the highest bidder. Following a review process created in 1984, the department has approved every application it has ever received, according to Slocum.
Natural gas prices in the United States doubled between January and June of last year, due to increased demand from abroad and a supply crunch caused by the Russia-Ukraine war, though they have since dropped to below their prewar level because Europe reduced its demand through conservation measures, and stored up a large reserve of gas, after unusually warm winter weather limited the need for home heating fuel.
The gas industry disputes the climate movement’s contention that LNG isn’t better for the environment than the alternatives in Europe. The American Petroleum Institute, which represents oil and gas companies, performed an analysis in 2020 that found that if power plants in China, India or Germany switched from burning coal to LNG from the U.S., carbon emissions would be cut in half. (The methodological dispute stems from different assumptions about the carbon footprint of turning gas into LNG, the rate of leakage in Russian gas infrastructure and so on.) Gas also creates less conventional air pollution, like soot and smog, than coal does.
“Last year, 2022, global coal consumption was at an all-time record, so there’s clearly an opportunity to displace more coal with U.S. natural gas and derive substantial environmental and greenhouse gas benefit from that use,” Richard Meyer, vice president of energy markets, analysis, and standards for the American Gas Association, told Yahoo News. “If you take a look at the comparison of greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. LNG, there are benefits [compared] to Russian pipeline gas.”
Ground zero for the fight over LNG exports might be the port of Brownsville, Texas, where the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved applications to build two LNG export terminals in 2020. Environmental activists sued, arguing that the agency didn’t properly consider the climate change and environmental justice implications of the terminals. In 2021, they won a federal court ruling ordering FERC to review the applications again. That review is ongoing, and a spokesperson for FERC told Yahoo News that the agency could not comment on applications that “are currently pending.”
Local environmental and Indigenous activists have been campaigning against the terminals’ approval for years, and several local legislative bodies in the area, including the Laguna Vista Town Council and the South Padre Island City Council, have unanimously passed resolutions expressing their opposition.
“We want to see Europe get support for clean energy,” Rebekah Hinojosa, a Gulf Coast campaign representative at the Sierra Club, who is based in Brownsville, said. “The amount of time it takes for a LNG facility to be built is years and years. That’s time and resources that could be spent on cleaner alternatives. We want to see Europe be less dependent on fracked gas.”
The effects of fracking on surrounding communities, which can include air and water contamination, are another reason not to increase U.S. gas production, Hinojosa contended. Germany, France, Spain and the United Kingdom have banned fracking, as has New York state.
Texas LNG, one of the export terminals proposed in Brownsville, told Yahoo News that it reduces carbon emissions by using renewable power to turn gas into LNG.
“We are also focused on using responsibly sourced associated natural gas for liquefaction limiting upstream impact and providing a cleaner alternative to coal and dirtier fuels,” a spokesperson from Glenfarne Energy Transition, the project’s parent company, said in an email. “These steps are taken specifically to protect the public health and environment of our local communities, while providing training and high-paying jobs to a historically disadvantaged area.”
NextDecade, the company that proposed the Rio Grande LNG export terminal in Brownsville, did not respond to a request for comment. On its website, NextDecade boasts that it will capture and store underground more than 5 million tons per year of the carbon dioxide produced by the gas liquefaction process. But less than 7% of the project’s total emissions will be captured. The Sierra Club estimates that Rio Grande LNG could generate as much annual emissions as 44 coal plants or 35 million automobiles.
“It’s kind of like a Band-Aid over a bullet hole,” Emma Guevara, the Sierra Club's Brownsville organizer, told Yahoo News.
While the emerging CCS technology is frequently touted by the fossil fuel industry as a solution for climate pollution, environmentalists worry that it could have unforeseen drawbacks.
“We’re concerned about groundwater pollution, especially with how untested carbon capture and storage is,” Guevara said.
Without a shift from the Biden administration, however, the LNG terminals are likely to be approved, and CCS won’t be untested for much longer.