How does natural gas fit into US climate goals?

The Biden administration has frozen pending decisions on permit applications for liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to countries other than U.S. free trade partners. During this pause, which will last up to 15 months, the government has promised to “take a hard look” at the economic, environmental and national security issues related to LNG exports.

Environmental advocates, who have raised concerns about the rapid growth of U.S. LNG exports and its impact on the planet’s climate, praised the move. Critics, including energy companies and members of Congress, say it threatens European energy security and US energy jobs. Emily Grubert, associate professor of sustainable energy policy at the University of Notre Dame and former official at the U.S. Department of Energy, explains why large-scale LNG exports raise complex questions for U.S. policymakers.

Is the US a major LNG supplier?

The US is now the largest LNG exporter in the world. In November 2023, the most recent month with complete data, the US exported about 390 billion cubic feet of LNG, a record high.

The US has been a net exporter since 2017, with export volumes now equivalent to around 15% of our domestic consumption. This gas is sold at higher prices than domestically supplied natural gas, but it also costs more to process and deliver it. As of 2022, the US supplied 20% of total global LNG exports.

Are there plans to export more LNG?

The US Energy Administration predicts that North American LNG export capacity – much of it from the US – is likely to more than double from current levels by the end of 2027. There are currently five LNG export terminals under construction in the US, which are unaffected by the current pause.

Requests for additional export terminals are currently being assessed. These are the applications for which decision-making has been temporarily suspended.

Map showing nine proposed new LNG plants in coastal areas of Texas and Louisiana.

How does LNG fit into the transition away from fossil fuels?

LNG, and natural gas in general, occupies an awkward place in the transition to a low-carbon economy. Natural gas is a fossil fuel. Its combustion produces carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change.

Furthermore, natural gas processed for use is essentially pure methane, which is itself a greenhouse gas. When natural gas leaks into the atmosphere from sources such as wells, pipelines, or processing plants, it contributes to climate change. Since the mid-19th century, human activities – especially the burning of fossil fuels – have raised global temperatures by roughly 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Methane has caused about 0.5 degrees Celsius of that warming above pre-industrial global temperatures.

LNG is not a transition away from fossil fuels – it is a fossil fuel. Hypothetically, replacing LNG with more carbon-intensive fuels, such as coal or other natural gas supplies with higher methane emissions, could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term.

But there is debate about how much LNG is actually useful in that context, especially when it comes to whether LNG would actually lead to a switch from coal to gas, and if so, whether to maintain fossil gas use in the long term it’s worth it. Investing in new LNG infrastructure, meanwhile, means you’re committing to operating these facilities for years to come, or you’re planning to strand expensive assets by retiring them early.

LNG terminals also have significant local impacts. In addition to methane, they emit large amounts of other air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. Tanker traffic to and from them can damage swamps and waterways. Building more terminals, especially in areas where energy facilities are already concentrated, raises important public health and environmental equity concerns.

A transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions requires a commitment to actually transitioning away from fossil fuels. In my view, it is not clear that the deployment of LNG will achieve this goal unless it is done with an explicit plan and mechanism to ensure that the gas is only used where it is actually needed and can support a phase-out of emissions.

What do you think this policy review should take into account?

As I see it, the most important step is to develop a coherent national strategy for the role of natural gas in the U.S. energy system, consistent with the Biden administration’s rigorous goals of decarbonizing the U.S. electricity supply by 2035 and achieving a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economy in 2050.

Such a blueprint should include a plan for reforming the country’s energy infrastructure to phase out the use of natural gas, along with coal and oil. In theory, this could include targeted deployment of gas resources to ensure energy needs are met, deploying carbon-free resources along the way.

I would like to see a clear definition of the climate, healthcare and energy system impacts of approving additional LNG export terminals, with enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the US will comply with established limits on climate and other pollution, and on operational conditions. I would also like to see considerations of health and environmental justice deeply embedded in energy and climate decisions in general, and for LNG projects in particular.

These plants are primarily located in communities that have suffered decades of high rates of illness, premature deaths and environmental damage from fossil fuel infrastructure. Many of them have said they don’t want additional LNG development. In my opinion, without clarity on where the US goes on this issue, it will be extremely difficult to make good decisions on LNG, and on natural gas in general.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit organization providing facts and trusted analysis to help you understand our complex world. It was written by: Emily Grubert, University of Notre Dame

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Emily Grubert served in 2021-2022 as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Carbon Management and later as Senior Advisor in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, which has licensing authority over LNG terminals. She was not involved in LNG decisions.

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