The Biden administration’s plans for increased natural gas exports are causing a revolt within the Democratic Party.
Despite the boom in renewables reducing domestic demand for fossil fuels, the administration is backing the gas industry’s plans to sell fuel at higher prices abroad, believing they will lead to less production of climate-warming chemicals like carbon dioxide by displacing dirtier-burning coal.
The fossil fuel industry is making a broader transition to gas, which it is seeking to pitch as a climate-friendly fuel — and the Biden administration has so far allowed it to more than double the number of export facilities to ship gas abroad in its pressurized and liquified form (LNG).
But gas is itself a planet-heating chemical, and Democrats argue that the administration’s policies have done little to address a big problem for the climate: The U.S. fossil fuel industry plans to increase oil and gas production for decades.
Democratic senators, led by Ed Markey (Mass.), have called on the administration to stop investing in gas plants abroad, noting that the administration has already spent $1.8 billion on overseas fossil fuel plants this year alone, along with voting at the World Bank to direct $400 million in new gas financing to poorer countries.
“The United States can’t preach temperance from a bar stool, and right now, America is drunk on oil and gas production and exports,” Markey wrote Wednesday.
In addition, 32 Democratic members of Congress urged the administration in November to begin planning for the end of fossil fuels.
At the United Nations climate conference (COP28) that concluded this week, the administration unveiled a new plan to cut leaks from methane production, the predominant component in gas, in an effort to reduce one of the most serious sources of harmful pollution.
But in focusing only on leaks from transporting the fuel — something the industry already has incentives to do — the Biden administration is “ducking the hard issue” on climate change, Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) told The Hill.
That issue: the production of planet-warming fuels themselves.
Casten was one of 60 congressional Democrats who signed on to a November letter demanding the Department of Energy (DOE) reassess whether the new LNG terminals were in the national interest — a condition required for new gas exports under the 1931 Natural Gas Act.
Democrats like Casten argue that the elephant in the room is that much of the surge in production isn’t intended to be used by Americans. In 2022, the U.S. exported nearly 7 trillion cubic feet of gas — a record sum and about 20 percent of total production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The administration expects those exports to increase to about 10 trillion cubic feet by 2050, driving rising domestic production — even as domestic consumption falls.
“Is it in the U.S. national interest for us to decarbonize our economy and continue ramping up fossil fuel production and export overseas?” Casten told The Hill.
“I don’t think the DOE has even tried to answer that question,” he said, though he added that such an expansion was “clearly in the natural gas industry’s interest.”
The national interest test is one that Republicans are wary of: House Resolution 1, the party’s signature fossil-fuel-forward energy package, includes language that strikes the requirement. The bill also contains mandates to keep gas production high.
Like the Obama administration — under which fossil fuel exports became legal for the first time in half a century — the Biden administration has been broadly bullish on gas. Last year, as oil prices soared, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called on the nation’s oil companies to raise production.
And in April, even as the secretary emphasized the importance of increasing renewable production fourfold, she also proclaimed support for further gas exports.
“We want to be able to ensure that our allies can turn on the lights,” she said. “We know that natural gas is available right now. We have an abundance. So, we’re going to be a friend to our allies.”
In addition to national security, the Biden administration has framed increased drilling for oil and gas and increased exports as necessary measures to help the U.S. and allies get through the period before renewables and electric vehicles can take over.
Defending the administration’s controversial approval of the Willow project — a ConocoPhillips plan to produce oil for decades on Alaska’s pristine North Slope — Granholm told Bloomberg, “We are going through a managed transition,” and “we still have to allow people to get from place to place affordably and turn on the lights.”
In part, the administration defends this on climate terms: It says the drilling and exports will lead to fewer climate-warming emissions because once it reaches a power plant, burning gas releases about half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal.
While some research backs up the administration’s position, it is highly controversial for both climatic and economic reasons.
First, while gas burns about twice as clean as coal, it still releases planet-warming carbon dioxide — and it is a very potent warming agent in its own right.
The gas that spills from the industry’s notoriously leaky supply chain warms the planet dozens of times more than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.
In addition to the problem of leaks, exporters must pressurize, refrigerate and ship LNG across the ocean on fossil-fuel-burning tanker ships.
Once all that is factored in, according to October research from Cornell University, the refrigerated and pressurized form of the gas that the Biden administration is backing may heat the climate more than coal does.
Under the plan the Biden administration unveiled at COP28, the administration is poised to take on the problem of leaks.
But as it continues to support growing production and exports from the industry, it faces resistance not just from congressional Democrats, but also from environmentalists and the residents of impacted areas.
One particular emerging battleground is on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, where gas exporter Venture Global LNG is waiting for federal regulators to grant permission to expand its new Calcasieu Pass export terminal, which would export liquified gas to Europe and East Asia for the next 20 years.
That’s a proposal that’s controversial for many residents. The opposition is partly due to climate concerns. But it also stems from protracted local pollution from the facility, which, as of the summer, has been cited more than 130 times by Louisiana state regulators for unauthorized pollution.
When local residents compared state statistics with their own observations of unauthorized — and unreported — flaring of chemicals by Venture Global, which occurs when flammable chemicals are burned off to relieve a pressure buildup, they found that the facility had been in violation of its permit nearly two-thirds of the days it operated, according to a coalition of local civic groups.
With most of the proposed export terminal expansion clustered on the Gulf Coast, many residents are worried.
“There is nothing natural about natural gas: It should be called liquefied methane gas,” Roishetta Ozane, an activist from Louisiana, said at a protest at COP28 last week against the export plans.
That protest coincided with a letter from a coalition of environmental and civic groups urging the Biden administration “to publicly commit during COP to no further regulatory, financial, or diplomatic support for LNG in the United States or anywhere in the world.”
And Calcasieu Pass is just the beginning. Seventeen export facilities — more than double the existing number — have been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Seven more are awaiting approval.
In the November national interest letter, Democratic members of Congress argued that by considering these facilities one by one, rather than in the aggregate — and always assuming LNG is good for the climate — the DOE “ignores the aggregate impact that the explosive growth in U.S. LNG exports is having on climate, communities, and our economy.”
The lawmakers urged the department to “consider at what point additional export licenses are no longer consistent with the public interest.”
The fossil fuel industry has argued that it can all but eliminate the climate impacts of gas by a huge scale-up in carbon capture technology, which traps the planet-warming chemicals released by burning fossil fuels.
But a report by the International Energy Agency — which considers methane control measures essential but has called large-scale carbon capture an “illusion” — suggests that the current level of carbon capture investment is less than 0.1 percent of what would be needed to address climate change meaningfully.
Even if the gas industry successfully removes all the emissions from its whole supply chain, Casten argued, it will still leave massive climate issues on the table.
In a world where “the U.S. looks like Norway” — with a clean grid at home and a relatively low-leak fossil fuel sector — gas exports to other jurisdictions would still threaten to scuttle U.S. climate plans, Casten said.
That’s because even if the U.S. aggressively uses carbon capture on its gas plants, it has no control over what customer countries do, he noted.
The Democrats pushing back on the Biden administration’s plans — many of whom, like Markey, hail from Northeastern states that still depend on gas for heating — are largely not anti-gas hawks.
However, in addition to their climate concerns, they argued that the export terminals jack up domestic energy prices by forcing gas-dependent U.S. residents to compete with high overseas prices.
That conclusion comes from the U.S. Energy Information Agency, which found that “higher LNG exports create a tighter domestic natural gas market,” on balance “increasing domestic natural gas prices.”
Other fossil fuel companies have complained about this. On Wednesday, oil giant BP asked U.S. regulators to investigate Venture Global’s foreign deals — arguing that the company was ignoring its long-term contract customers to take advantage of more lucrative European opportunities.
Experts also argue that LNG exports — which will not begin reaching Europe and Asia until almost 2030 and will require supply to continue for decades — will displace cheaper renewables.
If the European Union follows its own decarbonization plans, “then by the time these new LNG terminals and pipelines enter operation, they would already not be needed anymore,” Simon Dekeyrel of Brussels-based think tank European Policy Center told Energy Monitor.
But European environmental campaigners argue that whether or not the gas is needed, once the contracts take hold, it will have to be used — meaning it will crowd out renewables.
That tracks with the findings of a 2021 meta-analysis that found that while gas might help “avoid greenhouse gas emissions in the short term, unintended long-term effects might also hinder the transition into renewables.”
Casten said he’d be “receptive” to the argument that U.S. LNG exports are needed to ensure European allies “still have warm homes and operating businesses.”
“But is it in the U.S. national interest for us to sell that gas to Europe at a premium over what we’d be willing to sell it for in the United States?” he asked.
“Because that’s wartime profiteering.”
By failing to confront the gas industry’s production plans now, he argued, the Biden administration risks empowering a new “behemoth” that will use its decades of locked-in profits to lobby directly against the kinds of fossil fuel reduction the U.S. needs to pursue.
The U.S., he noted, has not traditionally had a gas export industry — and only in 2015 were fossil fuel exports legalized.
Is it in the national interest, he asked, to create an “industry with a vested political interest” in ensuring those exports continue?
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