LNG exports will add to climate change

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The Biden administration is issuing orders to expand the amount of liquified natural gas (LNG) that it exports by over 50 percent as Europe seeks to reduce its reliance on Russian gas. However, by doing so we are decreasing our own energy security, while increasing climate-harming methane emissions and diverting capital expenditures away from green energy to yet more new fossil fuel infrastructure. There are better ways to aid our European allies in their time of energy need.

The U.S. tripled its worldwide LNG exports between 2019 and 2021.  At our current internal consumption rate, the U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates that the U.S. currently has about a 15-year remaining supply of its own natural gas. However, in 2021 the U.S. exported the equivalent of about a 2-month supply of our gas as LNG to Europe and Asia. With the rush to increase our LNG exports, 100-fold since 2015, we are diminishing our energy security at an increasing rate. 

Leakage of unburned methane into the atmosphere from the internal U.S. oil and gas supply chain is a major source of a very potent greenhouse gas, about 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. However, the climate impact from that supply chain is worsened when it extends to Europe. Research-based on a recent study by the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory shows that at least 230 million additional kilograms of methane leaked from the 28 billion cubic meters of natural gas exported from the U.S. to Europe as LNG last year. That is equal to about 16 percent of methane emissions from all sources in New York state. However, LNG exports to Europe will be increasing, at an increasing rate, so that leakage will only get worse.

Actual methane leakage from the oil and natural gas supply chain in the U.S. is inevitable and is now known to be far higher than estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). At least one-quarter of our total methane emissions is from that supply chain. Sending increasing amounts of that gas for export as LNG adds leakage from pipelines to export terminals, the liquefying process, off-gassing during sea transport in cryogenic tankers and re-gasification and additional pipelining in Europe. Add the carbon dioxide emissions associated with all of these additional energy-hogging processes creates a nightmarish greenhouse gas footprint for LNG exports.

This rapid upscaling of U.S. LNG exports is demanding new pipelines, export facilities and cryogenic tankers. This deflection of capital expenditures away from green energy deployment has two major results: First, it’s a further delay in the green energy transition needed to increase the supply of renewable energy. Second, this increased demand for natural gas production comes at a moment when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Agency and all others truly concerned about climate change are saying no funds should go to new fossil fuel exploration, production and infrastructure.

It is crucial to emphasize that a well-intentioned move to aid our European allies has serious consequences, intended and unintended. Like the industry’s cry for massive blue hydrogen production, which also demands an increase in natural gas production, this rapid increase in U.S. exports of LNG is tossing another lifeline to a dying industry. We cannot fail in our fight against climate change while helping to win a war exacerbated by a Russian natural gas cudgel.

So, what should we do instead? Accelerate the energy transition processes already underway in Europe. Help to decrease its demand for Russian natural gas. Most of the imported natural gas is used to generate heat for residential and commercial use, space and water heating and cooking and drying. Therefore, electrify all these uses and gain the tremendous embedded efficiency increases: Electrification actually reduces the total energy demand for these end uses. The U.S. should be exporting boatloads of high-efficiency electrical appliances and heat pumps to Europe. Simultaneously, accelerate the production of renewable energy to replace Russian natural gas. More boatloads from the U.S. of wind turbines, PV electrical components and battery storage systems. As EU Climate Policy Chief Frans Timmermans said, “The answer to this concern for our security lies in renewable energy and diversification of supply.”

The European energy crisis brought on by the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made clear that the key to energy security for all nations is the realization that nobody owns the infinite and free supplies of solar, wind and hydro energy.  They cannot be weaponized. We need to do all we can to export to Europe what will win the energy war in the long run while not imperiling the rest of the world with more greenhouse gas emissions. 

Anthony Ingraffea is the Dwight C. Baum professor of engineering emeritus and Weiss presidential teaching fellow at Cornell University. 

Robert W. Howarth is the David R. Atkinson professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University. 

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