What Colombia is to cocaine, the U.S. is to hydrocarbons—a supplier/pusher of molecules so dangerous that the two poles are now melting fast.
I’m going to tell a story about the week that should have been the worst ever for the oil industry, and actually may have turned out to be the best ever.
It’s December, 2015, and the world is focused on Paris, where climate negotiators from every nation on Earth are on the verge of successfully hammering out a real agreement for the first time. And the language, at least, of that agreement is strong. The world’s nations declared that they were committed to:
Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.
That language—especially the 1.5°C pledge, included at the insistence of small-island and African nations who’d adopted the slogan “1.5 to Stay Alive”—has formed much of the climate change agenda in the years since, as countries and companies adopt policies designed to keep themselves within a “1.5 framework.” That should spell constant decline for the hydrocarbon industry.
Except that, that very same week, the U.S. Congress, with almost no notice or debate, did something that may completely undercut the chances for a 1.5°C or even a 2°C world. It repealed the longstanding ban on exporting U.S. oil abroad. The GOP-led House had passed a similar bill earlier in the fall, but it took concurrence from the Senate—and, in this case, from several key Democratic senators, who took a deal that extended “production tax credits” for wind turbines in exchange for lifting the export ban that had been in place since the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s.
I can remember sitting in a Paris cafe writing an op-ed against lifting the ban—Sierra Club ED Mike Brune, there in Paris with his family for the talks, edited and co-signed it with me.
Ending the oil export ban is a poor idea on many grounds: Unions oppose it because it will cost refinery jobs, conservationists oppose it because it will lead to more drilling in sensitive areas and increased pollution in communities of color. It makes a mockery of the idea that we’re actually interested in “energy independence.” We’d get 4,500 more rail cars a day full of explosive oil. It’s such bad policy that 69% of Americans, across both parties, oppose lifting the ban.
Even as we worked on the piece, though, we knew it was likely a lost cause. Exxon wanted it (“the sooner this happens, the better for us,” its spokesman explained), and there was simply no way to rally a fight against the change with every environmental journalist on earth focused instead on the outcome of the Paris talks.
And so the ban was lifted, and the damage has been massive. America is now the largest exporter of gas and oil on earth, having roared past Russia and Saudi Arabia. What Colombia is to cocaine, the U.S. is to hydrocarbons—a supplier/pusher of molecules so dangerous that the two poles are now melting fast.
Sadly, the damage is set to get far worse: As Oil Change International said in a landmark September report, the U.S. is responsible for more than a third of planned fossil fuel expansion around the world between now and 2030, far more than any other country. We are, it concluded, the “Planet Wrecker in Chief.” (The other biggest troublemakers include Canada, Norway, and Australia, which is to say rich well-educated countries that can find plenty of other ways to make a living).
So much methane escapes from the ships carrying LNG abroad that when all is said and done it’s at least 24% worse for the climate than coal.
Our status as planet-wrecker is most obvious when it comes to liquefied natural gas. I wrote a few weeks ago about the plans for 20 more massive LNG terminals, mostly along the Gulf of Mexico. The proponents justified them as “cleaner than coal,” arguing that gas would serve as a transition fuel in Asian nations; as I pointed out, the world no longer officially believes in this kind of transition, but instead is committed to net zero policies; the International Energy Agency has called for an end to all such new infrastructure.
But it turns out that even on those narrow grounds—“better than coal”—American gas exports are absurd. As I reported yesterday in The New Yorker, new data from the dean of methane scientists, Cornell’s Bob Howarth, shows that so much methane escapes from the ships carrying LNG abroad that when all is said and done it’s at least 24% worse for the climate than coal.
This new data perhaps will help persuade the Biden administration to do the right thing—to announce a halt to licensing any new LNG facilities until they have spent a few years doing a careful analysis to figure out what a piece of folly this is. And they can make that announcement with political cover: Then as now, polling data shows Americans hate fracking up our nation only to export the results, understanding that it will drive up the cost of energy for Americans.
They must do it, because the numbers are simply astonishing. As Jeremy Symons has calculated, if the industry gets to build out all those facilities, they will be associated with an extra 3.2 billion tons of greenhouse-gas emissions annually, which is close to the entire annual emissions of the European Union. That is insane.
But Biden could—again, without doing himself political damage, and perhaps recouping some of the goodwill lost when he opened up Alaska to new oil drilling this summer—begin to stuff this export genie back into the bottle, undoing at least a little of the enormous damage that this Obama-era concession produced.
We’ve got to hold exporters responsible for the greenhouse gases those exports produce—otherwise we’re just paying games. America is number one here, a truly ignoble distinction. But that means that we have the single greatest remaining chance to limit the damage of fossil fuels. We’re very much in the endgame; the question is who will play it better. The oil industry won in 2015; they’ve got to lose in 2023.