It reminds me a lot of Keystone XL saga, but with perhaps even more at stake.
The great privilege of being a journalist is that you get to ask questions, and people generally answer them, so you find stuff out. And sometimes that stuff is shocking.
I’ve spent the last few weeks working on a story for the New Yorker about the build-out of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminals. With some help from a remarkable editor and an unshakable fact-checker, it came out a few days ago, and at the risk of being repetitive I wanted to share some of the reporting with you, because it seems to me to point in the direction of what might be the next—and perhaps the ultimate—big battle with the fossil fuel industry. It reminds me a lot of the Keystone XL saga, but with perhaps even more at stake.
"If this buildout continues, and if you counted the emissions from this gas against America’s totals, it would mean that American greenhouse gas emissions would not have budged since 2005."
To put it simply, with the invention of fracking, America—and Canada, and Australia—ended up with huge supplies of fossil gas. It’s not really needed—we could, more cheaply and much more cleanly, power the world with sun, wind, and batteries. But if that happened, the people who own these reserves would have to forego the hundreds of billions of dollars they could get for selling that gas. That is unacceptable to them; they would far rather break the planet.
So they’re in an all-out sprint to get it to market as fast as they can, mostly by exporting it around the world. In the U.S., there are already seven giant LNG export terminals, and there are plans for at least twenty more, mostly along the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana and Texas, which are close by the giant gas fields of the Permian Basin.
If this buildout continues, and if you counted the emissions from this gas against America’s totals, it would mean that American greenhouse gas emissions would not have budged since 2005. Under the arcane rules of global carbon accounting, exported hydrocarbons don’t count against our total—they’re the problem of the country that eventually burns them (in this case mostly in Asia). But the atmosphere doesn’t care; once burned, the carbon quickly disperses around the globe, heating the entire planet.
Just a single proposed terminal that I talk about in the New Yorker piece—the so-called CP2 LNG plant proposed for Cameron Parish, Louisiana—would over its lifetime be associated with twenty times the greenhouse gas emissions of the huge Willow oil complex that Biden controversially approved earlier this year.
The industry insists that selling gas overseas helps slow climate change, because it could replace coal. But scientists in recent years have shown that leaking methane makes fracked gas at least as bad for the climate as coal—and in any event scientists and diplomats have in recent years embraced the idea of net zero instead of slow incremental transition from one fuel to the next to the next. We’re simply out of time to use natural gas as a “bridge” to a cleaner future; we have to make the jump to renewable energy (which, ironically, is what kept the Texas power grid running during this summer’s heat). The International Energy Agency said in 2021 that we had to stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure right now; the best example of what they were talking about are the giant plants proposed along the Gulf of Mexico.
The good news is that the administration could put the kibosh on these expansion plans. Before they can get a license sell the gas to most of the world, the companies need a certificate from the Department of Energy that such sales would be in the public interest. After a northern hemisphere summer like the one we’ve just experienced, that should be a an easy call. (In the southern hemisphere, meanwhile, Brazil is slated to break its all-time high temperature record—in the waning days of winter.)
"The industry insists that selling gas overseas helps slow climate change, because it could replace coal. But scientists in recent years have shown that leaking methane makes fracked gas at least as bad for the climate as coal."
The less-good news is that the administration probably doesn’t especially want to do this. The gas industry was very chummy with the Obama-Biden administration (which even set up a special office in the State Department to promote fracking in other countries), and it continues to be a force in this White House. There are important staffers who view supplying natural gas as a way for America to achieve strategic dominance around the world, and the Ukraine crisis offered them a pretext. But the U.S. has enough infrastructure now to meet Europe’s demand—the White House and the EU congratulated themselves this summer on their success in meeting last winter’s energy challenge, and pledged to deliver as much again this year. As our friend Svitlana Romanko keeps pointing out, defending Ukraine is not an excuse for setting up plants with 40-year-lifetimes that will devastate the climate.
And the hard news, of course, is that challenging Biden during an election year that will pit him against a fascist (and climate-denier) is tricky at best. I’ll return to that theme in a few days because it’s important to try and get it right, but suffice it to say we need to do two things. One is beat Donald Trump, and another is stanch the flow of carbon into the atmosphere. Perhaps we can do both.
For today, let me just say: I come away from this reporting convinced that if the LNG build-out continues—here and in Canada and Australia—its sheer size will overwhelm our efforts to rein in global warming. But I’m also convinced it’s the last big gasp of this industry, and that if we can somehow stop it, then the switch to clean and renewable energy will come far more rapidly around the world. A lot is on the line.