US Exported Natural Gas Could Worsen Climate Change

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Contributing Writer

While natural gas has been touted as a solution to the world’s fossil fuel problem, a new analysis by NRDC shows that the U.S’ exports of liquified natural gas (LNG) will only worsen global warming. When looking at the full life cycle emissions of different energy sources, U.S. LNG led to higher emissions than regional sources of LNG, pipeline gas, solar or wind power, and led only to slightly lower emissions than the use of coal.  This question is a live one for several LNG export terminals that are in the process of being approved today, including a controversial one near Philadelphia that is about to be given the go-ahead over the objection of many community groups.

Why this Matters:  It seems increasingly clear that new natural gas infrastructure is controversial. Cities are taking action to ban natural gas from new buildings, and chefs are advertising the utility of electric stoves, but more must be done. The waste and pollution from LNG production, as well as the exorbitant sunk costs for LNG export facilities, are problematic too.  The federal government must under President Biden give these new permits a harder look with more transparency than in the past, and crackdown on the polluters just as promised. Otherwise, we are just digging a deeper climate hole for ourselves.

What’s the problem with exported LNG?

The process of creating and exporting LNG is not energy efficient — liquefaction, tanker transport, and regasification of LNG fuels increase emissions. As such, the United States’ expanding LNG export industry would mean that by 2030 the domestic emissions from the U.S. LNG industry would produce the same emissions as 45 million gas cars, not including the emissions that come from actually burning the gas. “Taken together that means nearly half of the emissions for LNG over a 100-year timeline – 44%, according to this new analysis – come from production, processing and transport,” the NRDC said in a press release. 

“Exports of LNG, far from being a `bridge fuel’ away from dirtier fossil fuels as the gas industry claims, will make it more difficult for both the U.S. and importing countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, locking in this fossil fuel for the coming decades could make it impossible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” said Tina Swanson, director of the Science Center at NRDC and co-author of the report.

Drilling, transporting, and processing LNG cause higher amounts of methane to escape into the atmosphere. Some of these methane leaks are accidental, but energy companies also purposefully flare (burn) or vent (directly release) excess natural gas that hasn’t been liquefied. More U.S. gas and oil producers are flaring than ever — in 2019, more gas was wasted in two oil fields than was consumed annually by homes in 23 states combinedBecause of these drawbacks to LNG, some countries have began to reevaluate decisions to import natural gas from the United States. France, for example, blocked a $7 billion, 20-year agreement to import U.S. natural gas out of environmental concerns. 

The Philadelphia Terminal

Take the Philadelphia Terminal that is about to be approved at the state level in what environmental advocates call a less-than-transparent process. The proposed facility will be built on a former explosives plant that is PCB-contaminated. To get fracked gas produced near Scranton to the site, it will be transported by rail or truck through densely populated parts of the Philadelphia region, then loaded on ships bound for markets abroad — an untested system. Environmental and community groups argued so far to no avail, that the permitting process at the federal and state level was rushed and that the project will have “substantial negative impacts on the Delaware River, its water quality, its habitats, and the species that live in and depend on the River, Estuary and Bay.”

 Solutions

The NRDC recommends that “moving forward, FERC and DOE should acknowledge the relevance of these emissions, clearly outline which emissions fall within the purview of each agency, and capitalize on the remarkable brainpower of FERC and DOE staff to develop a test to evaluate those emissions’ significance on the environment and consistency with the public interest.”

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