Why Biden’s pause on new LNG export terminals is a BFD

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections by Osha Davidson

Natural gas has long been touted as a “bridge fuel” to a clean energy future that gets all its power from renewable sources like wind, solar, and geothermal power. That’s because natural gas produces about half as much carbon dioxide as coal when burned to generate electricity. But researchers have warned for years that natural gas — whose main ingredient is climate-warming methane — is not the trouble-free substitute for coal that the oil and gas industry claims.

The long-simmering issue became a top news story in January when President Joe Biden announced he was hitting the pause button on permitting new liquid natural gas, or LNG, export terminals, controversial megaprojects costing billions of dollars along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

“We will take a hard look at the impacts of LNG exports on energy costs, America’s energy security, and our environment,” Biden said in a statement. “This pause on new LNG approvals sees the climate crisis for what it is: the existential threat of our time.”

Why do we care about methane, the main ingredient in natural gas?

The footprint of LNG export terminals on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Purple pins mark operational LNG export terminals, red pins mark terminals that are under construction, yellow pins mark terminals that have been approved but are not yet under construction, and blue pins mark proposed locations for new terminals. (Source: FERC. Interactive map: Samantha Harrington)

While natural gas produces less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels when burned, methane is a hundred times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. So why is carbon dioxide the evil poster child of climate change?

As MIT’s Jessika Trancik documented in a landmark 2014 paper published in Nature Climate Change, the answer is time. Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere trapping heat for up to 1,000 years, whereas methane lasts for about a decade. When both time and heat-trapping capacity are factored in, Trancik documented that methane is 80 times worse than carbon dioxide over 20 years and nearly 30 times worse over the course of a century.

What do people think about the Biden administration’s decision on LNG export terminals?

Reaction to Biden’s move was swift, from critics and supporters alike.

“I can’t even pretend to understand the calculus in an administration that would trade away our energy security,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska. The Wall Street Journal speculated that the pause “may be [Biden’s] most destructive climate act.”

Predictably, the oil and gas lobby, the American Petroleum Institute, called it “a win for Russia [a major natural gas exporter] and a loss for American allies, U.S. jobs and global climate progress.”

More unexpectedly, the usually sober Washington Post’s editorial board characterized Biden’s action as “an election-year sop to climate activists that will do much more to unsettle vital U.S. alliances than to save the planet.” (What’s with the Post’s implicit belittling of a group that’s fighting climate change, a problem the board headlined as a “crisis” in 2022?)

It’s hard to see how delaying permits on the construction of new plants would affect allies because the pause doesn’t halt current shipments or stop work on terminals already under construction.

And such fears “ignore basic trends in global gas markets,” according to the Ohio-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, which supports a rapid transition to sustainable energy. “The largest buyers from new U.S. LNG facilities are not European and Asian consumers at all,” the institute reported. “Instead, they are large oil and gas traders speculating on their ability to resell LNG at a profit.”

Critics of LNG terminals include top climate scientists like University of Pennsylvania’s Michael Mann (of “hockey stick” graph fame), Robert Howarth of Cornell University, and Mark Jacobson of Stanford. They were among 170 scientists who signed a letter to Biden in late December “imploring” him (their word) to ban construction of new LNG terminals.

“As scientists,” they wrote, “we are telling you in clear and unambiguous terms that [these projects] will undermine your stated goals of meaningfully addressing the climate crisis.”

And, of course, the Washington Post was right about climate activists: They overwhelmingly applauded Biden’s decision.

“This is the most significant action taken by a president to curb fossil fuel expansion,” said the League of Conservation Voters. In a tweet, the Natural Resources Defense Council called it “a key step toward phasing out the fossil fuels powering climate change + polluting communities.”

Longtime climate activist and author Bill McKibben may have said it best (he certainly put it most succinctly) in a Substack piece titled, “Um, I think we all just won.”

McKibben was a lead organizer of a mass sit-in planned this month in Washington, D.C., aimed specifically at stopping the expansion of LNG terminals. The event, which was canceled after Biden’s announcement, was modeled after a protest McKibben helped organize in 2011 against the Keystone XL Canadian tar-sand pipeline in which more than 1,000 people were arrested outside of the Obama White House.

Why is there a push for LNG terminals in the first place?

When climate change first entered public discourse in the late 1980s, the primary focus was on the carbon pollution produced by burning coal. In 1990, coal was the undisputed king of electric power (as it had been for decades), producing more than half of all electricity generated in the U.S. At just 12%, natural gas’s share was below that of second-place nuclear power (19%).

In 2005, natural gas only produced as much electricity as nuclear power. But advances in the drilling technology known as hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) allowed companies to tap into oil deposits trapped in shale, where enormous quantities of natural gas were trapped. This led to a boom in natural gas production and by 2022, the fuel was the single largest source of U.S. electrical generation (40%), effectively displacing coal (19%).

With so much natural gas coming online, the domestic market was becoming saturated, driving down the price. So the industry set its sights on the enormously lucrative overseas market. In 2016, the first U.S.-based LNG export terminal was completed in Louisiana. Pipelines from the oil- and gas-rich Permian basin in southwestern Texas and eastern New Mexico brought the product to the terminal where it was supercooled to -260 degrees Fahrenheit. From there, the highly concentrated liquid was shipped abroad. With the promise of immense profits beckoning overseas, the rush was on to build more terminals along the Gulf Coast, and in just eight years, the U.S. went from being a net importer of LNG to becoming the largest exporter in the world. As Forbes put it, “the shale revolution became a golden age for LNG.”

In 2019, the CEO of Houston-based NextDecade, which has an LNG export terminal under construction in Brownsville, Texas, told a trade journal that “Every incremental hydrocarbon produced [in the Permian Basin] from this day forward — whether its [sic] oil, liquids or gas, needs to be exported.”

Of course, all revolutions have winners and losers. The obvious big winner of the export boom is the oil and gas industry. Revenues for U.S. LNG exports went from essentially nil in 2015 to about $10 billion in 2021. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, export revenues shot up to more than $35 billion that year as big European importers of Russian natural gas began switching to U.S. suppliers.

The primary loser, to put it in the starkest possible terms, is the global environment.

How does natural gas affect the climate?

Natural gas emits enormous quantities of potent planet-warming gases at all stages of production, starting with drilling and leaks during pipeline transmission. Storage facilities also vent and flare climate pollution. And, of course, burning the gas to generate electricity creates additional heat-trapping gases.

Of special concern are “super-emitter” events, like the 2016 blowout from a Southern California well. The Aliso Canyon discharge continued for 112 days, releasing more than 100,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere, as much of the gas as emitted by the entire Los Angeles Basin in an average year.

According to the International Energy Agency, methane is now responsible for 30% of total global temperature rise — with annual concentrations of the gas rising each year.

Natural gas plays an increasingly major role in the climate chaos we’re now experiencing, including the frequency and intensity of weather disasters like the atmospheric river flooding that California is only just beginning to recover from, wildfires (like summer 2023’s incineration of Lahaina, Hawaii, that killed 100 people, and the one in Chile that’s already claimed more lives than the Lahaina fire), and lethal heat waves that have killed hundreds of thousands worldwide. And that chaos threatens to push countless species to extinction. What’s more, building new LNG export terminals will lock in the use of fossil fuels for decades to come — ironically delaying the transition to renewable energy to which natural gas was supposed to be a bridge.

How do LNG terminals affect nearby communities?

Front-line communities surrounding LNG terminals are the most directly affected, but least recognized, losers in the meteoric rise of natural gas exports, said Wilma Subra.

“The terminals are major, major sources of toxic air pollution and environmental contamination,” Subra said in an interview. “And because they’re often located in communities with marginalized populations, this is an issue of environmental justice.”

It would be hard to find someone more qualified to gauge the effects of LNG terminals on nearby communities than Subra, who’s spent more than 55 years studying the health impacts of the oil and gas industry. She’s served on multiple federal government bodies, including chairing the EPA’s Technical Workshop for the Hydraulic Fracturing Study on Chemical and Analytical Methods, and was appointed to a six-year term on the EPA’s council on environmental justice.

Outside of government, Subra is best known for providing expert water analysis to citizens’ groups in the U.S. and abroad, a pursuit that earned her a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a MacArthur “genius” award.

“Most of the nearby communities rely on fishing and shrimping,” she says, “and suddenly they’re unable to make a living from those waters.”

Even more troubling are the health impacts on humans from accidental gas leaks and from venting to reduce pressure and flaring.

“The gas is filled with toxic substances,” Subra says, “including PFAS, also called ‘forever chemicals’ because they can persist for a thousand years.”

Subra ticks off a list of other dangerous components in natural gas, including formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, xylene, naphthalene, ammonia, barium, hydrogen sulfide, cadmium, sulfur dioxide, and radium 226 and 228.

Exposure to these chemicals and compounds is linked to a variety of health problems. Acute symptoms include irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, throat, mouth, and lungs, headaches, coughing, convulsions, vomiting, and pulmonary edema.

Chronic impacts are even more devastating. They include heart disease, aplastic anemia, damage to a developing fetus that can result in a spontaneous abortion, harm to both male and female reproductive systems, and a long list of cancers: liver, blood, brain, kidney, lung, bone.

Add to that the dangers from an explosion, like the disaster at an LNG export terminal in Skikda, Algeria, in 2004 that killed 27 people and injured 74. Subra points out that all of these impacts — from climate change to disease to lethal fires and explosions — aren’t limited to export terminals. She recently submitted testimony citing all the health impacts mentioned above but related to a proposed LNG storage facility in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.

She told the New Mexico Gas Commission: “The LNG facility will put all of the populations … at severe risk of having their health and environment negatively impacted” and urged the commission to reject the facility.

The more than 300,000 miles of natural gas pipelines that crisscross the nation also pose significant risks. A 2022 report on methane gas leaks by USPIRG, an environmental advocacy group, examined 2,600 leaks in natural gas pipelines from 2010 to 2021 reported to the federal government. Explosions and fires from those leaks killed 122 people and injured 603. (Those numbers don’t include deaths and injuries caused by leaking pipes inside people’s homes.)

Read: Gas stoves pose health risks. Are gas furnaces and other appliances safe to use?

Subra says she’s glad the Biden administration is delaying new LNG export terminals, but she quickly adds that wasn’t her first reaction when she heard the news.

“When I read the announcement, I was like, why now?” Subra says. “Why didn’t they stop this earlier? So much damage has already been done especially to the nearby disadvantaged communities.”

What comes next for LNG export terminals?

Looking forward, Subra hopes the Biden pause becomes a full stop: “We have to figure out a way to get the natural resources we need without negatively impacting the environment and human health.”

So far, the Biden administration has been pursuing a two-pronged approach: funding the buildout of a clean-energy economy at levels never seen before while also funding technologies that would allow fossil fuels to be burned with reduced carbon pollution, like carbon capture and sequestration at power plants, and tightening fuel economy standards for cars and trucks.

The problem with the latter is that, to paraphrase the aforementioned WaPo editorial, it is an election-year sop to the fossil fuel industry that will do little, if anything, to save the planet.

That’s because the money for reducing fossil fuel emissions could be better spent building out the clean energy economy we ultimately need. MIT’s Trancik crunched the numbers and determined that “investments in improving natural gas infrastructure, for example by learning how to detect, repair, and avoid … leaks, might see limited use beyond the next couple of decades.”

To reach the United Nations’ climate goal of net-zero carbon pollution by 2050, Trancik found, “natural gas would be phased out.”

And that’s exactly what climate activists are calling for. As Tim Donaghy, research manager for the environmental group Greenpeace, USA, said on the day of Biden’s announcement: “Methane is a fossil fuel just like coal. It’s not a transition fuel. It’s not a bridge fuel. We need to get rid of it and move on to a clean power future.”

Posted by Guest Author on Wednesday, 28 February, 2024

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