When Russia invaded Ukraine, Europe’s supply of cheap methane gas from Russia was abruptly cut off. For many years, Europe depended on that supply of gas to power its industries, generate its electricity, and heat many of its homes. Immediately, fossil fuel interests in the United States saw a huge new business opportunity. Take methane gas from fracked wells in America, compress it into liquid natural gas (LNG) and float it over to Europe aboard specially designed LNG tankers.
Construction soon began on major new LNG terminals in Europe to receive the gas from America, most of which is shipped from ports along the coast of Texas and Louisiana. But many of those ports are not deep enough to accommodate the LNG tankers and so a plan was developed to build offshore terminals in the Gulf of Mexico that would pipe the gas from shore to the waiting ships. Those plans are awaiting approval from the Biden administration as we speak.
Bill McKibben has been waging a fierce campaign to thwart those new LNG terminals. This week in his latest Substack post, he lists five reasons why he believes the administration will not deliver the approvals to make those terminals a reality.
First, he cites the convergence of many important voices who have expressed opposition to the planned LNG terminals. This week, 170 scientists wrote to the president to urge the plans be rejected. According to Food and Water Watch, the letter cited the enormous impact the proposal would have on global climate pollution — about 20 times that of the recently-approved Willow oil drilling project in Alaska. Original signers of the letter include noted climate and environmental scientists Rose Abramoff, Robert Howarth, Mark Jacobson, Peter Kalmus, Michael Mann, Sandra Steingraber, Farhana Sultana and Aradhna Tripati. The letter said in part:
“Taken together, if all U.S. projects in the permitting pipeline are approved, they could lead to 3.9 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, which is larger than the entire annual emissions of the European Union… We implore you to turn back from this course, reject CP2 and other fossil fuel export projects, and put us on a rapid and just trajectory off fossil fuels.“
McKibben writes,” People living nearby these enormous facilities have always known they were enormous, but in recent months the rest of us have gotten a much better idea of the scale. So much fracked gas is now pouring out through the Gulf that it wipes out the gains under the president’s IRA clean energy plans; indeed, it wipes out all the emission reductions made since the turn of the century (emhasis added).
LNG Emissions From Tankers
His second point is that in October, professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University published a study which claims the leakage of methane gas from those tankers as they cross the Atlantic Ocean is so extreme that the net result is the gas ends up having 24% more emissions than burning an equivalent amount of coal. In the conclusion of his study, Howarth writes:
“[We] need to move away from any use of LNG as a fuel as quickly as possible, and to immediately stop construction of any new LNG infrastructure. Those proponents of exporting LNG from the United States are wrong when they assert a climate benefit for the use of LNG over coal. In fact, the LNG greenhouse gas footprint is larger than that of coal and short term energy needs such as those caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine are better met by reopening closed coal facilities, on a temporary basis, than by expanding LNG infrastructure.
“Any new LNG infrastructure will become a stranded asset as society moves away from all fossil fuels. In recent years, many have recognized that we need to move away from natural gas, as well as coal, to address the climate emergency. With an even greater greenhouse gas footprint than natural gas, ending the use of LNG must be a global priority.”
More From Bill McKibben
Third, McKibben says new data demonstrates these exports raise the price of natural gas for those Americans who still depend on it for cooking and heating — which probably also explains the remarkable polling data showing just how opposed Americans are to fracking the country and then sending the resulting gas off to other counties, especially those in Asia. There is a fine irony in the fact that global heating has now caused such drought in Central America that those monster LNG tankers can no longer use the Panama canal to get to their intended destinations.
Fourth, more new data has demonstrated that we’re already supplying more than enough LNG to make Europe whole against the cutoff of Russian supplies in the wake of the Ukraine invasion. That market data makes it abundantly clear that Europe is coping quite well with the absence of cheap Russian methane gas as the Continent makes a pivot of heroic proportions to renewables, conservation strategies, and heat pumps.
The firth reason Bill McKibben gives for why he thinks these new deep water LNG terminals won’t be approved by the Biden administration is because 200 other nations joined with America in Dubai at the close of the COP 28 conference in a promise to “transition away from fossil fuels.” That was an historic moment in the trajectory of COP conferences, which never before have found the courage to suggest fossil fuels are why such conferences are needed in the first place. If the US is serious about that pledge. it cannot in good conscience approve those monster LNG terminals in the Gulf of Mexico.
A Sixth Reason Not To Approve LNG Terminals
We can think of one more reason why the Biden administration should reject the proposed deep water LNG terminals. Just this week, it promulgated new rules for green hydrogen production that rebuffed the fossil fuel industry, which wanted to be able to claim enormous federal subsidies to produce not so green hydrogen. The administration rejected their pleas and suggested rules that save the highest subsidies for projects that do not rely on electricity from conventional resources for more than 1 percent of the total needed to produce hydrogen.
The green hydrogen program holds out the promise of billions of dollars in federal tax credits and incentives to create a new industry that makes truly green hydrogen. If the LNG terminals in the Gulf are approved, their emissions would more than cancel out the emissions reductions expected to result from the green hydrogen program.
Since that would be illogical, we assume the administration will decline to offset the emissions reductions contemplated by its green hydrogen program by approving a huge increase in emissions for the LNG industry. Then again, we are talking about politics here, so anything is possible. But McKibben and others are ramping up the pressure on the administration to do the right thing. We should know shortly how the Biden administration decides to handle the LNG question.
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