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The great American natural gas reckoning is upon us

So, Biden paused LNG exports. Does this … fix climate change?

An LNG tanker moored at a terminal on the US Gulf Coast.
The White House has paused permitting for new natural gas export facilities, citing climate change concerns.
Julia Naue/picture alliance via Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

The Biden administration last week announced that it was pausing the permitting process for some new natural gas export projects, including a facility that would be the second-largest gas export terminal in the United States. It’s a move the White House said will help the US meet its climate change goals, but it’s not clear how it will affect the economy, energy markets, or the environment.

It’s worth parsing this announcement carefully. The White House said on January 26 that it’s issuing a “temporary pause on pending decisions on exports of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) to non-FTA [free trade agreement] countries until the Department of Energy can update the underlying analyses for authorizations.”

That means the move won’t affect exports from the eight LNG export terminals already operating in the US, which exported an average of 11.6 billion cubic feet of LNG per day in 2023 — 1 billion more than the world’s second-largest exporter, Australia. It only applies to permit applications for new terminals looking to export to countries that do not have free trade agreements with the US, which includes most of Europe and Asia. There are currently four LNG export terminals under consideration with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The White House notes that in spite of this pause, US LNG exports are still projected to double by 2030. And the pause is temporary, which means that if the proposed permits do eventually pass muster, gas exports from new terminals to non-free-trade-agreement countries could proceed anyway.

The Golden Pass LNG plant under construction on the US Gulf Coast.
While permits for new liquefied natural gas export facilities are paused, exports from existing terminals will continue.
Julia Naue/picture alliance via Getty Images

The Energy Department said it will use the delay to examine LNG export permit applications with newer data to ensure potential exports serve US interests, accounting for domestic energy needs, national security, and the environment. The process will take several months at least, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said during a teleconference.

While the pause itself is narrow in scope, it’s part of a broader reckoning as the US’s newfound dominance in oil and gas production collides with ambitions to reduce its contributions to climate change. Biden’s decision to halt some new LNG permits is a change in course from his predecessors. The Obama administration issued the first license to export natural gas in 2011, and under Trump, LNG exports more than quadrupled.

And while the US is now a major energy player abroad, exporting more oil and gas can affect its own appetite for hydrocarbons. The pause is a signal to gas producers and buyers that the country is beginning to factor climate change into its international energy policies and opens the door to the far-away possibility that the US could one day turn off the taps altogether.

What is liquefied natural gas, and what makes it different from “regular” gas?

Natural gas is largely composed of methane, an odorless flammable gas. In the US, most natural gas is produced by hydraulic fracturing of shale, which releases gas trapped within the rock. That gas is then sent by pipelines to power plants or regional facilities and from there into homes, businesses, and industrial facilities. About 40 percent of natural gas in the US goes toward power generation, where it provides 40 percent of total electricity.

The challenge with natural gas is that it takes up a lot of volume, making it difficult to ship overseas, at least in its gas form. To send natural gas abroad, producers instead chill it to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, turning it into a liquid that is 600 times smaller in volume.

But it takes a lot of energy to liquefy gas, pump it into a tanker, cross an ocean, and then turn it back into a gas on the other end. So, the overall cost is higher, the total greenhouse gas emissions are greater, and the net amount of energy provided is lower with LNG compared to conventional natural gas.

An LNG shuttle tanker floats off the coast of the island of Rügen in Germany.
Germany is among the countries that have stepped up their LNG imports to avoid buying Russian gas after Russia ramped up its invasion of Ukraine.
Stefan Sauer/picture alliance via Getty Images

LNG also requires specialized export and import facilities. In the US, it can take three to five years to build an LNG export terminal once it’s approved. Germany, on the other hand, managed to build an import facility in 200 days as it scrambled to fill a gas shortfall after closing the valves from Russia after that country scaled up its invasion of Ukraine. In general, though, LNG is not as fungible as oil, which can be easily shipped by the barrel, collected in numerous ports, and refined into a variety of different fuels and raw materials. Instead, LNG requires more planning and long-term coordination between countries to build up a global supply chain.

That makes it trickier to use LNG as a tool to aid allies and corner adversaries, especially when a new foreign policy crisis arises or a sudden energy crunch grips the market.

Is LNG at least better for the climate?

Whether LNG is better for the climate than other options is a topic of intense debate. If it replaces coal, then in general, yes. Since it’s made mostly of methane, it burns more cleanly than coal, producing roughly half of the greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s still a fossil fuel that contributes to warming, and every new gas terminal, transport tanker, and power plant implies these emissions will continue for decades more.

By one estimate, US LNG shipments to China reduced the intensity of greenhouse gas emissions — the amount of greenhouse gases released per unit of energy — by as much as 57 percent. Other analyses have also found that countries that import LNG produce power with lower emissions than with local coal. Another advantage is that gas produces fewer air polluting substances like particulates, so turning away from coal has immediate health benefits. And having more cheap gas on the global market could undermine the case for new coal power plants in some countries, if they can secure a reliable gas supplier.

But some environmental activists say this paints too optimistic a picture. For gas importers like the United Kingdom, LNG has a greenhouse gas footprint four times larger than gas extracted locally. Methane is itself a heat-trapping gas, about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, so small leaks from gas infrastructure — as little as 0.2 percent — can quickly overwhelm any environmental advantages. The added steps of chilling and shipping gas create even more opportunities for LNG to escape, and the industry has done a poor job of tracking its fugitive emissions. In addition, some LNG exports will simply fill in existing gas needs, as they do in parts of Europe, so the climate impact overall is at best a wash, though likely worse than more locally produced gas. At the same time, renewable energy is already the cheapest source of electricity in many parts of the world, and climate activists argue that gas no longer serves as a bridge to a low-carbon world.

The US can’t flex LNG the way Saudi Arabia flexes oil

Policymakers and the gas industry have long dreamed about turning the US into “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” That means being a country with a resource abundant enough to rule global markets and serve as diplomatic leverage, much as Saudi oil does. The Trump administration said it aimed to use natural gas to “unleash American energy dominance.”

The US is the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas. However, it is also the world’s largest consumer of these fuels, meaning that unlike Saudi Arabia, it places huge demands on its own production.

Still, the US’s natural gas bounty is so massive that last year the US also became the world’s largest natural gas exporter (though the country still imports some gas). The US has used these exports to bolster allies in Europe who are trying to cut back on Russian gas.

Graph of US natural gas exports, showing an increase of just under 5 billion cubic feet per day in 2012 to just over 20 billion in 2023.
The US is now the largest natural gas exporter in the world.
Energy Information Administration

But again, LNG isn’t as fungible as oil, and it can take years for any decisions affecting exports to make a dent in energy markets. In addition, Saudi oil is controlled by a single government-run company, making it easier for Riyadh to turn the taps on and off as it sees fit, whereas the US doesn’t have a national gas company. While the US government can control exports, it can’t dictate prices, limiting the extent to which Washington can wield gas as a weapon.

American exports of LNG are also raising tensions with hungry domestic industries that use it as a raw material to make chemicals like hydrogen and as fuel to produce commodities like steel. Some of these companies are concerned that more gas exports will come at the expense of domestic supplies and raise US natural gas prices. In a letter, the Industrial Energy Consumers of America, a manufacturing industry trade group, urged the Energy Department to pause LNG exports. “As LNG export volumes increase, reliability risks and costs for both natural gas and electricity increase,” Paul Cicio, the president of the group, wrote.

At the same time, the Biden administration committed to cutting US greenhouse gas emissions to between 50 and 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, achieving net zero emissions across the whole economy by 2050. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is projected to see its emissions rise significantly between now and 2030. But both countries are exploiting a huge loophole in international climate change accounting: Fossil fuel exports don’t count toward a country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, the emissions from burning oil and gas go on the importer’s ledger.

So while the US now has a gargantuan energy resource that it can readily extract at home, it’s much harder to use it as an economic and negotiating tool abroad.

Climate promises are easily broken

The Biden administration is promoting this pause as a point on the board in the climate change win column as he faces an election in November and looks to rally his climate-conscious supporters. But again, the pause on permitting is temporary, and there’s no guarantee that the Energy Department will rule one way or the other on its approval.

Some activists hope the review will ultimately lead to rejecting these permits for new LNG facilities. “This is an important step,” said Caleb Heeringa, program director for the Gas Leaks Project, a group campaigning against natural gas. “I think it’s unlikely if you take an honest assessment of these facilities’ impact that you can come to the conclusion that it’s in the public interest.”

However, some think the pause may just be a punt, and market forces will ultimately win out. “The administration’s decision to slow play permits seems very much connected with short-term electoral politics,” said Jason Feer, head of business intelligence at Poten & Partners, an oil and gas consulting firm. “Come January 2025 … regardless of who wins the election, there’s a good chance you will see things speed up.”

Protestors holding signs opposing new natural gas terminals in Germany.
Environmental activists in Europe have protested new LNG import terminals.
Stefan Sauer/picture alliance via Getty Images

If the pause lasts longer, however, other countries could start to react, switching to different fuels or different suppliers. “Longer delays and continued uncertainties around the potential for US LNG would have long-lasting implications for the global LNG market, possibly jeopardizing the role that gas can play in the energy transition,” said Giles Farrer, head of gas and LNG research at Wood Mackenzie, an energy consulting firm. “The US regulatory uncertainty provides impetus for competing projects.” While the US is the world’s largest gas exporter, it’s facing competition from Canada, Australia, and Qatar, countries that could scoop up customers that the US forgoes.

For its part, the Biden administration has shown that when pressed, it’s willing to promote more fossil fuels. The White House bragged about low gasoline prices, even tapping the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve to increase supply (there is no similar reserve for natural gas). Biden also allowed new oil and gas lease sales on public lands, breaking an explicit campaign promise not to do so. Last year, he drew the ire of environmental activists and broke another promise when he approved the Willow oil-drilling project in Alaska.

So it’s not surprising that officials left themselves some wiggle room. In the January 26 announcement, the White House noted the pause is “subject to exception for unanticipated and immediate national security emergencies.” And if any lesson has crystalized from the past few years, it’s to anticipate the unanticipated.

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