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In a significant shift, the fight against climate change in the United States is veering towards a new battleground. Environmental activists are now targeting the country’s substantial expansion of liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports. While it might seem astonishing, the United States became the world’s top exporter of natural gas in the first half of 2022, despite LNG being a relatively young industry.
This transformation comes as President Biden, who has committed to achieving a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and a net-zero emissions economy by 2050, is actively promoting the expansion of LNG exports. This expansion appears to contradict his environmental goals, causing concern among environmentalists.
The surge in domestic natural gas production, primarily due to the success of fracking in the late 20th century, is driving the boom in exports. The first LNG export from the United States took place in 2016, and since then, over two dozen new LNG projects have been proposed, some under construction, while others await approval from the Biden administration. LNG export requires federal permits, and previous administrations, including those of Obama and Trump, approved several projects concentrated on the Gulf Coast.
However, it is the Biden administration that has taken a geopolitical approach to LNG exports. The White House views LNG exports as a way to support European allies, reducing their historical dependence on Russian energy. Notably, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Biden struck a deal to send large volumes of LNG to the European Union, aiming to reduce Russia’s influence. Over the past four years, U.S. exports have doubled, and they are expected to double again by 2027.
Prominent climate activists, Bill McKibben and Lennox Yearwood, argue in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed that it is “gobsmackingly bananas” for Biden to continue authorizing more LNG projects. They believe the administration has a unique opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to addressing the supply side of the climate challenge as seriously as the demand side.
McKibben, who led the successful fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, and Yearwood, president of the Hip Hop Caucus, assert that the extensive LNG expansion off Louisiana’s coast is ill-conceived, particularly in a region prone to increasingly powerful hurricanes. They argue that it will disproportionately harm impoverished communities of color, despite the Democratic party’s repeated commitment to providing extra protection to these communities due to their vulnerability to climate change.
Other environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, have also become more vocal in opposing the surge in U.S. gas exports. Critics are demanding that the Biden administration conduct a more thorough assessment of the impacts of these projects before allowing the fossil fuel industry to proceed.
McKibben and Yearwood’s campaign has not yet received a response from the White House. However, advocates of increased LNG exports argue that expanding LNG projects could be a net positive for the climate if natural gas replaces coal, which is often considered the dirtiest fossil fuel.
Supporters contend that LNG exports can provide energy to millions of the world’s poorest populations. This perspective is frequently used by pro-drilling advocates, who argue that access to fossil fuels can significantly improve the living conditions of people in developing countries.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, dispute this viewpoint, emphasizing that human prosperity does not depend on burning fossil fuels. Additionally, they raise concerns about the short-term environmental impacts of switching from coal to natural gas, such as the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Moreover, they argue that an increase in LNG exports to Europe and Asia, America’s fastest-growing markets, could lead to higher energy costs domestically, increasing expenses for heating, cooling, and cooking. According to environmentalists, reducing LNG export projects could be presented as a measure to put money back into the pockets of American consumers.