LNG exports: America’s hidden ​‘climate bomb’

If growth continues, U.S. emissions from LNG exports could rival emissions from the continent of Europe. Bill McKibben and other guests discuss.

The Carbon Copy podcast from Latitude Media

In less than a decade, America has become the world’s top exporter of liquefied natural gas.

In the mid-2000s, the U.S. was building terminals to import more fossil gas. But that all changed after the fracking boom unlocked vast reserves of hydrocarbons. The U.S. became a net exporter in 2017. Then, Russia’s war on Ukraine forced a scramble for new supplies of gas in Europe — and American companies stepped in.

The consequences: a historic push for new LNG export terminals, a vast new source of heat-trapping gases that could wipe out U.S. climate gains, and a growing conflict over how the government approves new LNG infrastructure.

We’re joined by Bill McKibben, author, organizer and founder of Third Act; Nicole Pollack, a contributing writer at Canary Media; and Jeremy Symons, analyst, political strategist and principal at Symons Public Affairs.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

  • Canary Media: Nicole Pollack’s deep dive into the controversies over FERC approval of LNG exports
  • Canary Media: LNG exports are a​‘really, really big’ climate threat, McKibben says
  • New Yorker: Bill McKibben’s article on Robert Howarth’s latest research on LNG emissions
  • Jeremy Symons’ recent research on how LNG exports are causing U.S. emissions to rise

Sign up for Latitude Media’s Frontier Forum on January 31, featuring Crux CEO Alfred Johnson, who will break down the budding market for clean energy tax credits. We’ll dissect current transactions and pricing, compare buyer and seller expectations, and look at where the market is headed in 2024.

Transcript

Stephen Lacey: This is the Carbon Copy. I'm Stephen Lacey. In less than a decade, America has become the world's biggest exporter of liquified natural gas. In the mid 2000s, the US was building terminals to import more fossil gas, but that all changed after the fracking bloom unlocked fast reserves of hydrocarbons. The US became a net exporter in 2017, and then Russia's war on Ukraine forced a scramble for new supplies of gas in Europe, and American companies stepped in. The consequence, a historic push for new terminals, a vast new source of heat trapping gases that could wipe out US climate gains, and a growing conflict over how the government approves new LNG infrastructure. This week we explore the latest climate flashpoint, liquified gas.

I'm the executive editor at Latitude Media. Welcome to the show. And I'm here with three people who've been following the rise of liquified gas exports very closely. Nicole Pollack is a journalist who writes about climate change, health and sustainability. She's a contributing writer for Canary Media and has been reporting on the controversies inside the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Department of Energy over us LNG exports. Hi, Nicole, welcome.

Nicole Pollack: Hi, good to be here. Thank you for having me.

Stephen Lacey: We've also got Bill McKibben with us. He's a very familiar voice to many of our listeners. He's one of the sharpest writers and organizers at the forefront of the US climate movement. He's well known for founding 350.org, and he most recently founded Third Act, which organizes people over 60 to work on climate issues. And he's the author of 20 books, many of which I have read. Fantastic writer and a regular columnist at the New Yorker, where he recently wrote a piece about the hidden impact on the climate of LNG. Bill, welcome.

Bill McKibben: Hey, what a pleasure to be with you, man.

Stephen Lacey: And Jeremy Symons is also with us. He's the principal at Symons Public Affairs. He's an influential analyst and political strategist who works on energy, climate, and conservation issues in Washington. He was previously VP of Political Affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, and also served different roles in government focused on environmental and energy issues. And he's also been at the center of this conversation over LNG, and we're going to get to some of his analysis. Hey Jeremy, how are you?

Jeremy Symons: Great to be on the show.

Stephen Lacey:

Good. Well, so glad you could all come together on this topic. So let's start with you briefly, Jeremy. As I said at the top of the show, America is now the biggest exporter of liquified gas. Can you just give us a sense for how this came to be in under a decade and what the scale of buildout looks like?

Jeremy Symons: I think it's really caught everybody by surprise, just how big this is. This first shipment of LNG didn't flow from the US until 2016, and just in the last three years we've had a doubling of LNG exports, and the amount already under construction is expected to double again in the next three years, how much LNG. And that's not the end of the pipeline, if you will, of LNG projects. There's a whole wave of new proposals coming after that, that if this administration approves could even quadruple LNG from where we are today. So the scale of this, I mean we're talking about potentially reaching levels that begin to rival the amount of gas that we use domestically. That's how much gas we are now talking about shipping around the world.

Stephen Lacey: So Bill, what are the environmental stakes here for LNG export expansion? The gas industry has long said, "Of course we would want to burn gas in place of coal." And over the last decades it's become pretty clear that gas isn't as clean as initially touted. Just tell us why is that the case and what is some of the current research around LNG emissions specifically mean for the climate impact of this expansion?

Bill McKibben: Sure. You burn gas, you produce carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide heats the atmosphere, but you produce less carbon dioxide than you do when you burn coal. So for a while people were like, "Well, think of it as diet coal, and at least it's better than what we're doing now." Science as usual has a way of interfering with all the things that people want to do. When scientists started looking more closely, they realized that unburned natural gas leaks out into the atmosphere. Molecule for molecule, it's like 80 times better at trapping heat than CO2. So even a little tiny bit of stuff leaking out in the atmosphere is enough to negate whatever small advantage it ever had.

It's been clear for years now that natural gas used domestically, because a lot of it leaks out, is pretty much akin to using coal. And now we have really interesting new data from Bob Howarth at Cornell, the kind of dean of methane scientists, who's done the work to show that when you put all this stuff on a boat and send it halfway around the world, the amount that leaks out in that whole process makes it way worse than coal. So that's where a lot of the concern comes from. I would add though that it's almost dumb at this point for us to even be comparing it with coal, because that's no longer the logical comparison. We now live, and this is what's changed over the last 10 or 15 years, we now live on a planet where pointing a sheet of glass at the sun is the cheapest way to produce energy, and it doesn't produce any carbon and no methane neither. So that's what we should be comparing it with. And in that case, it's just another fossil fuel like any other.

Stephen Lacey: So you and Nicole Pollack had a conversation recently at Canary Media, and you talked to her about this issue, and said that it actually snuck up on you. And Jeremy said the same thing, that it took a lot of people by surprise. So many in the environmental movement are coming around on this now. When did the consequences become clear for you?

Bill McKibben: Well, I got to say, I was reading some of the stuff that Jeremy... I mean, I've been writing about domestic natural gas for a long time, and was one of the first to kind of sound the alarm that said this stuff actually isn't any better than coal, and we should be dealing with it. That was like a decade ago. But I hadn't been paying attention to the absolute scale of this boom in export LNG. And then, Jeremy started producing figures that were showing things like, this was going to wipe out everything that America had done on greenhouse gases since the turn of the century, that if we let it go all the way that the LNG industry wants, soon enough American LNG exports will be producing more greenhouse gas emissions than everything that goes on in Europe. I mean, it's not good news that we found a new continent full of greenhouse gas emissions. That's the last thing we need in the world.

Stephen Lacey: Yeah. So Nicole, I want to bring you in here, but first I want to reference that, talk a little bit more about that research that Bill referenced. So Jeremy, you did produce this analysis recently showing the impact to America's emissions, exported emissions from all of this LNG infrastructure build out. And there's two things. One is that the emissions impact would be the size of Europe, and then also there's this common belief that a lot of this LNG will offset coal, but you've shown, or project that it could actually offset more renewables. So walk us through those findings and how you perform the analysis.

Jeremy Symons: Sure. Let me start just by, you asked that interesting question of Bill, and Bill had his kind words, but let me be clear. I'm just the middleman in delivering the news here. I really didn't wake up to this and I've been working on climate and energy for many years, but I didn't really understand the scale of this until I actually went down to the Gulf, and visited with communities in Texas and Louisiana who have been leading this fight for years, and are on the front lines of suffering those impacts. People like [inaudible 00:08:56] and James Hyatt, we could go on and on, John Beard, and [inaudible 00:08:59]. And so, I just want to make sure that the scale of what we're facing comes down, has very real human impacts, and that we hold that as we think about this climate impact and this comparison that you ask about, this notion that LNG is going in displacing coal.

20 years ago, this was the way we thought about climate change. We need incremental reductions in emissions, maybe gas because we didn't understand methane, maybe gas can help deliver that. So let's get it where it's needed. That's just not the case today. You were coming out of COP28 where there was a lot of attention to the issue of like, are we phasing out, or phasing down, or not? Fossil fuels, the forbidden subject in global climate talks for 30 years, but clearly everybody knows the science is clear.

The investment paths of what are needed are very clear, that we have to invest in not only renewable energy alternatives, but also just energy conservation. And these two things together are the pathway forward. And so, if you want to see what's happening, the promises and the words used at COP are one thing, but watch what people build, right? And if you watch what people build, that's where LNG becomes a huge problem, because these are projects that are going to take years to build. And once they're built, they rely on streams of demand and markets for decades in order to make them profitable. They're going to be creating those markets, they're going to be doing everything they can to dampen the enthusiasm and the investments in energy efficiency and clean energy.

Stephen Lacey: And so, how did you find that the emissions impact would be like adding the continent of Europe? Where are you getting that data?

Jeremy Symons: The Department of Energy in FERC actually have very detailed sites on the application process, because at the end of the day, each one of these facilities needs a couple of different approvals in order to operate, one of which is this public interest determination at the OE. So they have online where the applications stand, and I went and inventoried with help from a number of great people, including Amy Vernon-Jones and Sierra Club, went and inventoried each one of these projects and figured out how much of a footprint that would create. And then applied some of these more updated emission factors that are available thanks to the studies that are out there, that really look at the lifecycle emissions of liquefying a gas to 260 degrees, putting it on a ship, sending it overseas, re-gasifying it, and then shipping it where you get all these methane leaks that Bill was talking about.

Stephen Lacey: So let's bring you in here, Nicole. You have been doing some real deep dives on the approvals process. You have a feature that will be coming out soon on the history of US liquified natural gas expansion and then also how the approvals process works in the Department of Energy. You've also already published a piece on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and there's two tracks of approvals of this infrastructure. In the second half of the show I want to go a little bit more in detail into how those approvals work, but there's a lot of pressure now being applied on these agencies to factor in climate change and emissions impact. But this is putting the administration in a really tough spot right now. So maybe we can just step back more broadly and talk about how this is starting to complicate the way the administration thinks about climate change, or complicate its messaging on climate change. So what did you find as you dug into this really difficult position this is now putting the administration in?

Nicole Pollack: So the Biden administration has made a lot of indisputable progress when it comes to accelerating renewable energy production and renewable energy development in the US, and also globally. But we haven't seen that happening in the same way when it comes to putting pressure in the other direction, which is curtailing the use of fossil fuels. On LNG in particular, what we've seen is that the Biden administration has pretty much stuck to the precedent that was set during the Obama administration, and then maintained and even increased during the Trump administration, on just supporting exports, promoting exports, promoting the use of LNG around the world as a sort of reliable, theoretically lower emitting fuel.

Today what we're seeing with the Biden administration is that even the impact studies that it's using, specifically that the DOE is using to inform its decisions, were completed when Trump was in office, and don't necessarily align with the data that we have today. And that's significant, because about 10% of all of the natural gas produced in the US is exported, and any one of these facilities can process several percent of all of the consumer grade natural gas produced in the US, and ship it out around the world. And if you think about that, with eight facilities already operational and more expected to come online in the coming years, that's a pretty significant amount of US natural gas.

Bill McKibben: Nicole is absolutely right, but I think there's another way to frame the question then the one you did. What it really does is create an immense political opportunity for the Biden administration at this point. If the Department of Energy said tomorrow, "We're going to pause granting new permits for these export LNG facilities until we can update our criteria," that would take a couple of years. And if the criteria were updated honestly to reflect the falling cost of renewable energy and the rising temperature on planet earth, we'd never build another one of these things.

If they did that, Biden would be able to say with some legitimacy, "Not only have I done more on the clean energy side of this than any of my predecessors, I've blocked more dirty energy than any of my predecessors." He might be able to begin to recoup some of the goodwill that he lost when he, especially with young voters, approved that Willow oil complex in Alaska.

And in this case, and I think this may have been what Nicole was, one of the things she was getting at, he could do it with very little political risk, because when you export natural gas, one of the things you do is drive up the price for Americans who still rely on it for heating and cooking. Stopping new export facilities would be an actual inflation reduction act around energy. So I think that this is a huge opportunity for Biden. I don't think what's happened, my guess is that he's not been there micromanaging the decisions about approving LNG facilities so far. And as we've been pointing out, national groups, unlike local regional ones, have not been making enough noise. So now's the moment when he and Jennifer Granholm face a real decision, if they do it wisely, they come out ahead in many ways. And let me just add that I think they are going to do the right thing.

Why do I think that? Because 36 hours ago before we recorded this, the US signed onto a statement in Dubai saying, "We are engaged now in the transition away from fossil fuels." No one expects Joe Biden to shut down every oil well in America overnight. That's not what a transition means, but a transition clearly means not building more stuff, more new stuff. So I think having signed that Dubai declaration, they're probably sending a signal that they're getting ready to do this right thing on this biggest single challenge that they face.

Stephen Lacey: Jeremy, what do you think about that?

Jeremy Symons: I think the opportunity is really clear, because rarely do you have this confluence of an environmental necessity and an economic necessity like Bill was talking about, that they can deliver for voters in Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin who face high not only gas bills, but electricity bills that depend a lot on domestic gas. There's no question that these prices have been going up largely because the reason that the LNG market was essentially opened was to attach US gas prices to global prices, and more importantly, global fluctuations, which is where the profits really come in. But there's a challenge too, and we should acknowledge that, on the national security front for the administration, which has done a real strong leadership job since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in supplying and trying to guide flows to Europe. And what we learned from that, a couple things. First of all, national security is an abstract concept.

The fact is no country owns this oil except in the case of a few, a lot of the oil starting to go, excuse me, LNG is starting to go to China and Chinese owned companies, but most of it is in the free market. And so, there really is no ability to steer these different shipments. But nevertheless, we've learned that even with existing capacities, the market has been able to fully satisfy EU's gas needs after they got off Russian gas. And going into this winter, their stocks are full. The International Energy Agency is now warning that there's an LNG glut if we continue to build these facilities. So the national security steps that the administration has taken seems to be sufficient. There's already these new builds, as I mentioned, under construction. Why would we keep adding to it? It's simply to create a profit model and to expand a profit model amongst a few companies that will compete with clean energy.

Stephen Lacey: So Bill, we just have you for a few more minutes, so I'm just going to wrap up here with a couple of questions. First of all, just tell us what is Calcasieu Pass, known as CP2, and why is it more consequential than almost anything else that's been built under this administration?

Bill McKibben: There's already a CP1, which is an enormous and noxious facility, and now right next to it, they want to build CP2. And so, if there's another big one of these built, it's likely to be the next, and the scale of it is off the charts. I was talking about that Willow oil complex before, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with CP2 would be 20 times that of the Willow oil complex. I mean, we're talking about the closest thing to a climate death star that anyone's going to build anytime soon. It's also unbelievably noxious to the people who have to live near it. First piece about this that I wrote for the New Yorker, I've talked to a guy named Travis Dardar who comes as close to being the kind of, if you had to pick one person on earth, most impacted by the fossil fuel industry, it might be him. He had to leave his first home, Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, because it was the first place the federal government evacuated because of sea level rise.

He relocated to Cameron Parish, which apparently was a very nice place to live until they plunked CP1 down a half mile away, and told them they were going to build CP2 on his fence line. So he's been relocated by that company now a second time, he's living 40 miles further upstream, travels two and a half hours to his fishing grounds, which have been badly damaged by these LNG terminals. That's the kind of impact you're seeing on the ground, and also the effect on the air around.

If someone told you that in the same year that we saw the highest temperatures we've seen in 125,000 years on this planet, the same year that we breached for the first time this two degrees Celsius barrier, that same year we were also going to build the biggest LNG export facility of all time. You'd say, "That does not seem like a very wise plan to me."

And that's why I'm pretty sure that the Biden administration will see reason and say, "We're not going to approve..." Steve, they have to sign a certificate before these things get an export license saying that they are in the public interest. I cannot think of any definition of in the public interest that building something like CP2 would come close to qualifying for.

Stephen Lacey: So we have seen many examples of the US climate movement having a really positive impact on policy and on infrastructure. Keystone Excel, and I was there at the launch of the Do The Math tour in 2012 and how that mobilized the climate movement, the movement that sort of set in motion in Congress and put pressure on Democrats in Congress to create legislation that would eventually turn into the Inflation Reduction Act. So when the environmental movement, now the climate movement specifically, it's quite powerful, when it puts its muscle behind something, we do start to see real change in a significant conversation. So this is starting to mobilize a lot of folks, and I'm just wondering what comes next, Bill? How do you see this coalescing in the environmental movement?

Bill McKibben: So this feels to me, I think you used the right analogies. It feels to me a lot like Keystone did a decade ago. And one reason is that there is really great work going on between the local groups down in Louisiana and Texas, and now the national and international environmental movement, and people are understanding how this affects people at every scale. When we get that together, then we have a real chance of making progress. I think that there's every reason to think that there will be a full on movement support for real action, including civil disobedience and things in the months ahead. But truthfully, as I've said before, and you can call me a pie eyed optimist here, which is not something people call me very often. I'm fully prepared to go to jail about this, but I don't think I'm going to have to, because I cannot believe that the same administration that just signed a piece of paper saying they wanted to transition away from fossil fuel won't also, and in short order, announce that they're not going to keep granting these permits.

I think this one is so obvious, so blatant, the closest thing to a no-brainer. We'll organize and we will fight, and we already are. Third Act is backing up in every way we can think of our brothers and sisters down on the Gulf, but I'm guessing that it's going to be a short fight with a big win, and that win will boost Joe Biden in significant ways. Which is a good thing because if we win this fight but then lose the election in 2024, Donald Trump's already said day one of office will be a dictatorial day in office devoted to the theme of drill, drill, drill. So I think we can kiss any victories we win goodbye unless we also manage to get behind Biden fast.

Stephen Lacey: Bill McKibben, writer, organizer, founder of Third Act, really appreciate you being here. Thanks a lot.

Bill McKibben: A great pleasure, man, and many, many thanks to Nicole and to Jeremy, who really has been providing the numbers that have been helping fuel this whole fight. So on we go. Take care, everybody.

Stephen Lacey: So Nicole, let's go over to you and get a little bit deeper into this process. You and Jeremy are very familiar with how this is actually playing out in government and in regulation. So let's just talk about how LNG infrastructure is approved. You have broken down your reporting into a couple of different pieces, one about FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and one about the Department of Energy. Can you just talk about projects are approved and how LNG infrastructure will wind through both of those agencies?

Nicole Pollack: Yeah, so as Bill and Jeremy have both touched on now, Congress gave oversight of LNG exports to the Department of Energy and to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is an independent agency within the Department of Energy. And then, the other body within the Department of Energy that I will be referring to when I say Department of Energy, is the DOE's Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management. So the important distinction here is that FERC has, and I'm quoting here, "the exclusive authority to approve or deny an application for the citing, construction, expansion, or operation of an LNG terminal." And what that means practically is that FERC is the one that's in charge of actually building and running the thing. What DOE, the Office of Fossil Energy oversees is the exports themselves. So it's up to DOE to decide whether the facility can actually export to most countries.

If the US has a free trade agreement that covers natural gas, has to say yes, that does include Canada and Mexico, which get pipeline imports. And then it does include some other countries that would get LNG. But most countries under those agreements don't get a lot of US LNG. So most of the countries that are buying significant amounts of LNG from the United States are not under a free trade agreement, and are subject to DOE approval. Technically, these LNG projects don't have to wait for DOE approval to start construction, but they will, because if the DOE doesn't let them export the gas to countries that don't have free trade agreements, it's not going to be a economically sound project.

Stephen Lacey: Yeah, the DOE piece is fascinating. So first let's just talk about FERC. Critics call FERC a rubber stamp for these projects. Why?

Nicole Pollack: Yeah, that accusation of FERC being a rubber stamp for the fossil fuel industry is repeated a lot. And part of that comes from the fact that FERC has only ever rejected one LNG export proposal, the Jordan Cove project in Oregon, because it didn't meet the commission standards. And notably Jordan Cove was never built, but that's not because of FERC. FERC ultimately did go back and approved the project. It was, it ended up being canceled because of opposition at the state level. However, environmental groups keep challenging FERC's approvals of these LNG projects, mostly under the National Environmental Policy Act. Federal courts keep on finding that FERC needs to evaluate these projects, climate and environmental justice impacts a lot more thoroughly than it has been.

Jeremy Symons: Yeah, well FERC definitely has been a rubber stamp. I mean, if they have a stamp that says denied, no one's ever been able to lay eyes on it. They've approved, as Nicole said, everything in the end. And there was really great hopes when Willie Phillips came on to commission. He has made environmental justice a priority in terms of his engagement. But communities that have been fighting projects that are proposed in their backyards, that are already overburdened by the existing facilities, have found Phillips to be more of the same when it comes to approving these projects.

At the end of the day, until FERC actually rejects a project on environmental justice grounds, then every company knows that the Environmental Justice Review has little consequence. And since it has never done it, there is really little that communities get from that process, which is why in addition to the important work that continues legally to challenge FERC in the courts, why the focus on Department of Energy is so important, because the buck does stop with the Biden administration, and that's the power given to them under the Natural Gas Act on this public interest determination. And with FERC not doing its job, all of it falls to DOE.

Stephen Lacey: And so, one more question on FERC. So Nicole, there were some attempts, some proposed changes to factor in the climate cost to infrastructure within FERC, and there was a bunch of backlash from Republicans, and also from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, and that backlash caused FERC to step back from scrutinizing LNG, the climate impact of LNG proposals. How did that play out and how has that impacted the commission?

Nicole Pollack: I said this already, but I think it's important to repeat. So FERC is an independent agency, which means that it's a little bit insulated from pressure from the administration directly. But importantly, it's still subject to political pressure, particularly from Congress, which has to approve people who are nominated to the commission. Almost two years ago now, Richard Glick, who was the chairman of FERC at the time and the two other Democrats on the commission, voted to adopt a policy that would basically put more scrutiny on the greenhouse gas emissions and environmental justice impacts from LNG projects, and a lot of other gas projects as well. And they basically said that that was to make sure that FERC's decisions were holding up better in court amid all of these challenges that FERC kept losing.

And that really didn't go over very well. Republicans and also Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, were not happy. And the timing was terrible, because it happened about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, which then put LNG in a huge global and national spotlight, often very positively at least for a while. So ultimately, Manchin refused to vote for Biden's renomination of Glick to the commission, and Glick ended up having to leave at the end of 2022. And since then, his seat still hasn't been filled.

So FERC, which is supposed to be bipartisan, but leaning in the direction of the president's party, with three of its members typically of the five in the President's party, but right now it's down a member and it's a split between two Democrats and two Republicans. And because of the 50/50 Senate, anybody who Biden nominates will still need Manchin support. So he hasn't nominated anyone. I've basically been told by a lot of experts now that until the political landscape changes in Congress, and FERC can count more on its support, there's not a very high chance that it will risk everything again, given that it's still in a pretty restricted position with only four members. So that all means that there's a pretty high likelihood that it's going to just approve CP2 without pushing back too much on that proposal.

Jeremy Symons: Well, the nomination for the commissioner to replace Glick is going to be critically important, not only for LNG, but for other fossil fuel projects. And also for transmission problems that plague some of the renewable energy ambitions that we have in the country, which have really nothing to do with the permitting issues that some people like to talk about, and have a lot to do with issues that center on FERC, on cost allocation and cues, and other interconnection and other pieces. So that's going to be really important, particularly because the other Democratic commissioner, Allison Clements, on the commission has been particularly strong in speaking on some of these issues, about the problems that are plaguing the rubber-stamping that's going on.

It's not that Commissioner Clements is in any way taking sides on these issue broadly. But if you read her dissenting opinions on some of the opinions coming from Phillips and Republicans at this point, of course Phillips was appointed by Biden as chairman. They really shine a light on these issues of failure to really take seriously some of the climate justice and environmental justice considerations, and how these processes are moving forward. So right now, FERC is a commission in disarray without a clear roadmap of what it's trying to achieve and why. And Biden can have a huge impact on shaping the commission, particularly if it gets another term.

Stephen Lacey: Okay. So we've established in different ways throughout this conversation that maybe the levers of change lie more within the Department of Energy, because they have this standard of deciding whether an LNG project can go forward depending on the public interest, and they can factor costs, the impacts to markets and consumers, and then there's this hope that they will actually start factoring in climate change. So Nicole, when we talk about DOE's evaluation of the public interest, what does that actually mean?

Nicole Pollack: Well, so far it has basically meant that projects won't do huge localized environmental or national economic damage. A lot of FERC's and DOE's critics have said that even those analyses don't go far enough and sometimes don't factor in all of the harms that result from these projects. But the idea, at least right now, is that if a project isn't going to have some sort of ripple effect through the US economy, it's probably fine. The Sierra Club and some other environmental groups petitioned the DOE a long time ago now to reassess how it was evaluating the price and climate impacts of LNG exports, and the DOE finally actually replied to that this year.

And what it did was pretty much stick to the position that it's had for a long time, which is that the market is the best way to allocate natural gas supplies, and it doesn't want to step in and influence that too much, as long as there's not evidence that something drastic is going to happen. And so, there's this view among a lot of people who are really familiar with the authority that these agencies have, that they actually have a lot of leeway if they want to use it. And even the DOE kind of acknowledged that in its response to this petition, but nobody knows exactly how much leeway they have because they've never really chosen to use it.

Stephen Lacey: Yeah. Jeremy, how much leeway do you think they have?

Jeremy Symons: The act is very broad. I mean, it clearly requires them to do that, do the public interest determination and leaves it to Department of Energy to determine the public interest. I think the Department of Energy is having a really hard time now that so much sunlight is being shined on this process, that no one paid attention to in the media before, when DOE was doing these obscure studies back in the Trump administration. And even before that, DOE still relies on to this day to say, "Oh, well, we studied this in 2014 and in 2019 under Trump."

And the Trump administration study said, "Well, this stuff is probably not worse than coal, so it must be okay for climate."

Or you'll read these opinions that come out of the Department of Energy and they say they acknowledge that their environmental justice issues, and then just deem it in the public interest, and away. And they do actually acknowledge that there are price increases domestically that come from this, but they say they're low, they don't really categorize low, what that means. I don't know, in an era of inflation like we have had and the energy bills that people face in the winter, that a bureaucrat saying that the price increase is low is really going to stand up.

So it's not standing up well to scrutiny. I think there's an awfully good case to be made that, politics aside, just good governance here is that analysis needs to be done based on the current global goals, the president's commitments on climate change, the president's commitments on environmental justice, and what we're facing in energy markets today compared to this outdated analysis that they continue to rely on. They really don't do a project by project analysis. They do a project by project opinion, but they don't actually tell you what the greenhouse gas emissions are.

But if you add all this up, if you add up all the emissions from what's in operation, all the emissions from what's under construction, all the emissions from what is being proposed beyond that, we could be talking about the emission footprint of about a thousand, actually more than a thousand coal-fired power plants a year, more than the emissions of the European Union, which would put US exports alone as high as the third-biggest country on the world stage when it comes to climate. We are more than wiping out all the emission reductions that have happened over the last two decades, and we're in danger of wiping out all the emissions reductions expected from the clean energy build out domestically, including the good effects of the Inflation Reduction Act, the 2022 climate bill that Biden worked so hard for. We could actually be looking at being above 2005 emission levels by 2030 and beyond, when you count in the export emissions that we're producing.

Nicole Pollack: I think it's important to note that even though awareness of LNG and its ramifications has really increased in recent years, a lot of this information isn't new. The DOE itself has been studying the impacts, both economic and environmental, of LNG exports for over a decade now. And even setting aside the climate impacts, these analyses have pretty consistently shown that entire time, that increasing US LNG exports would both increase domestic prices and increase the amount of gas that was being produced in the US. So we're having more production and it's costing more, which is probably not great for US consumers, or for the climate. And we got pretty significant evidence of that recently when Freeport LNG went offline because of a fire, and domestic prices actually fell a lot. And then when they extended that closure, prices fell again, because there was too much LNG on the market, because the entire market was kind of hinging on so much of the gas being exported to keep prices at the level that they were. And this is when prices were already pretty high.

Jeremy Symons: And it makes no sense, right? Why are these continued to be approved? Because this is the way it has been done. We haven't really taken into account these factors in a meaningful way, because it's always been, as these analyses have gotten done, there's already been an agenda of approving these, because it's in the interest of the private sector and what they're trying to push. But now the question's really being called like, should oil and gas CEOs of these big companies be the ones who decide what our energy policy is, or should the government actually think about it? Think hard, and figure out what actually is in the interest. Do we want to build even more fossil fuel infrastructure to send fossil fuels produced here in America overseas? While we're also trying to build clean energy here, knowing that the net effect is we're just going to continue to cook the planet, and US consumers are going to get hosed at the same time.

Nicole Pollack: Something that I've found really interesting is that the Biden administration really hasn't said much about LNG. I mean, they've been approving it, but publicly outwardly, high ranking officials, including Biden himself, really don't talk about LNG unless they have to. And most of what they've said in the past several years since the invasion of Ukraine and since there was so much more attention on LNG in general, has been LNG is good for our allies. It is our responsibility because we have the ability to make sure that they have energy and fuel, and we're going to try to do whatever we need to make sure that it doesn't conflict with our climate goals. And that's kind of where they leave it. And evidence has shown for a long time and is increasingly showing, that there might not be a way to do that, to continue to not only export LNG, but ramp up LNG exports and stay in line with our climate goals.

One DOE analysis of Alaska LNG, which was reaffirmed by the DOE pretty recently, showed that even if facilities that received that gas burned it using carbon capture, the carbon footprint over its lifetime would be something on par with all of the emissions from the US power sector in a year. And that's with carbon capture. So if it doesn't use carbon capture, it's significantly more. So if you look at the scope of the emissions from every one of these LNG projects, and again, there are a lot of them already operating and in the works, it's hard to reconcile what those could do with what the US is committing to.

Stephen Lacey: All right, so the attention's building, the pressure's rising, and it's pretty clear that this is going to become the next big fight over fossil fuel infrastructure in the US. So as that unfolds, what should we be watching for in 2024? Nicole, what storylines are you following?

Nicole Pollack: Something Bill talks about a lot is the fact that most people don't understand the scale of the LNG build out. And to most Americans, it feels very far away and doesn't really feel like something that's impacting them personally. And I think a lot of people understand now that coal is not good for the climate, and coal power plants have a lot of emissions. And I think that there is still a lot that needs to be done to undo the idea that natural gas is a relatively clean bridge fuel, and that LNG can serve the same purpose. Even in the Obama years that's basically the approach that the administration took that, okay, well if we're exporting our gas to countries around the world, at least they'll be using that instead of coal.

And Jeremy has already spoken during this conversation about how that's not happening. But one thing that we might start to see, and I would expect that we would start to see, is that as the environmental movement is making more Americans aware of what exactly LNG is, and also what it's doing to the climate, and the fact that it's sometimes just as bad as building a new coal plant, or a bunch of new coal plants, we might start seeing the Biden administration have to start taking a stronger stance and explaining its actions, and explaining why it's continued to authorize these projects when it's, for example, committing to not using coal anymore, or committing to phasing out coal as it spoke about at COP 28. So I think it'll be interesting to see what the administration says and how it justifies its actions so far, and whether those change as more people start to pay attention to what's going on at FERC and what's going on at DOE.

Stephen Lacey: Jeremy, what are you watching for in 2024?

Jeremy Symons: 2023 is such a profound year in terms of climate impacts hitting home. Fresh off of the climate talks in Dubai, it's really discouraging in some ways to see, despite all the progress being made in clean energy and other pieces, that it still seems to be politics as usual globally here in the US, when you look at the makeup of Congress, and you look at this coming election and the stakes. But people who pay attention, people who are suffering through the consequences of climate, going from theory to reality are looking for big change and they're looking for leadership.

And President Biden has shown that leadership in so many spots on climate change, I think folks are looking for the complete package so they can go fully all in next year. And that's what needs to come together ultimately, is environmental justice movements, the climate movements all working together to make sure that we have real opportunity for significant change, to build the kind of clean energy economy fast that's going to deliver economic opportunity in these communities that doesn't kill them, right? Economic opportunity that doesn't cook the planet. And that's the stakes in 2024, and that's what I'm hoping for is not only progress and a win on LNG, and a new course from the administration on LNG, but looking for that alignment to happen.

Stephen Lacey: Jeremy Symons is an analyst and political strategist, and the principal at Symons Public Affairs. Thank you so much, and we will link to your research in the show notes. Thanks for being with us.

Jeremy Symons: Terrific. Thank you. And thank you, Nicole.

Stephen Lacey: Nicole Pollack is a contributing writer at Canary Media. Thank you, Nicole. We'll also link to your recent stories in the show notes. Appreciate you being here.

Nicole Pollack: Thank you again for having me.

Stephen Lacey: And we'll also have Bill McKibben's piece in the New Yorker as well, so you've got tons to dig into. And thanks for being here. The Carbon Copy is a co-production between Latitude Media and Canary Media. You'll have reading in the show notes. And if you like this conversation, if you want to react to what we talked about, leave us a rating and review. Go to X or go to LinkedIn and post your thoughts. We want to hear from you. This is a fast evolving story and certainly features some mind-bending numbers. And our producer is Dalvin Aboagye. Thanks, Dalvin. The theme music composer is Sean Marquand. He's also our technical engineer. And I'm Stephen Lacey, I'm your host and the executive editor at Latitude Media, and we will catch you next week.

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energy transition
fossil fuels
natural gas
liquified natural gas (LNG)