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US can improve energy security and climate together

Emissions rise from the smokestacks at the Jeffrey Energy Center coal power plant.
Emissions rise from the smokestacks at the Jeffrey Energy Center coal power plant as the suns sets Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, near Emmett, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Election seasons always feature exaggerated divisions, with candidates drawing bright lines between themselves and opponents. But lasting problems come when discourse devolves into false choices between important shared goals. Improving U.S. energy security and preventing catastrophic climate change are issues sometimes falsely opposed during election cycles, when there is little reason that they should be in competition.

For the last decade, during a period of relatively stable energy prices, public discussion has focused primarily on climate risk, for good reason. But as Americans deal with higher energy prices and Europe faces a full-blown energy supply crisis, it’s clear that sustainability and security are intertwined goals. Russia’s weaponization of energy and its impacts on EU climate ambitions provide the starkest example of the interdependency of climate, costs and security.

As the EU’s energy crisis threatens to become a humanitarian crisis this winter, the continent is backtracking on one of its most critical climate initiatives — reducing reliance on coal. Coal power is the world’s largest source of GHG emissions, with twice the CO2 emissions of natural gas power generation. Germany, France and others EU nations are reactivating polluting coal plants to cope with the crisis.

Nearly two-thirds of the world’s economically recoverable gas resources sit in just four countries: the U.S., Russia, Iran and Qatar. If our allies want secure gas supplies, the U.S. can and should provide it. Absent increased U.S. exports, the EU’s energy insecurity, as exposed by Russia, will continue as will greater coal emissions. And Europe will likely need other sources of gas for years, with the U.S. seeing higher natural gas prices, too, as demand rises.

All this is happening against the backdrop of another sobering reality.  Global coal emissions reached an all-time high in 2021, driving record levels of overall worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Along with a rapid build-out of renewable energy, the U.S. has the potential to greatly expand liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports by 2030, displacing global coal at an unprecedented pace while also replacing much of Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. Resulting global emissions reductions from this change would be substantial. Given domestic infrastructure investments, expanding American natural gas can be an important near-term opportunity to limit global emissions.

But not all natural gas production reduces emissions equally. Russia’s antiquated gas system has very high leakage rates of methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in producing warming, compared to U.S. gas. The Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) has found that China and other Asian nations may replace domestic coal with Russian gas, which is worse than coal from a climate emissions perspective, but could instead could use gas from America’s lower methane-leaking system if we make it available.

In the U.S., Congress, federal regulators and the gas industry are moving to reduce methane emissions. Recently adopted climate legislation includes a fee on methane emissions from the oil and gas sector to incentive reductions while offering funds needed for upgrades to prevent leaks, and EPA is working to finalize complementary methane regulations. The largest U.S. natural gas producer, EQT, says it has reduced methane emissions by one-third in the last three years and has pledged to be at net zero by 2025. Leading U.S. LNG exporters like Cheniere and Venture Global are also acting, labeling the total emissions of cargoes and capturing carbon dioxide at some facilities. But more can be done.

U.S. policymakers and the industry must continue to reduce emissions through measurement, validation and policy frameworks to drive methane toward net zero. But by virtually every measure — climate, geopolitical or economic — it is clear that we must also increase our production of natural gas for some time to come.

The main obstacle remains the lack of energy infrastructure. Our nation’s pipelines and export facilities are at maximum capacity and can’t meet with demand, driving up prices. Yet, new projects are regularly halted by lawsuits and a sclerotic permitting system. A recent PPI report finds these problems are blocking clean energy projects ranging from wind energy development to enhancements that will make LNG infrastructure hydrogen-ready. Without comprehensive permitting reform and a commitment to addressing infrastructure needs, the U.S. won’t be able to expand clean energy and help our European allies or the rest of the world reverse the rise in global emissions, while also addressing energy insecurity and limiting inflation.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if we are motivated more by energy security, climate change or by our pocketbooks. Cleaner energy solutions and technologies can unite us. Both parties in Congress should see it that way, as well.

Paul Bledsoe is strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute, and a member of the advisory council of the Partnership to Address Global Emissions (PAGE).He served on the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.


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