Fossil fuels — the key test to Biden’s climate credentials

The Biden-Harris administration will soon be entering office with an undeniable mandate to act on the climate crisis — one that must include banning fossil fuel exports. 

They have made climate justice an underpinning of their economic recovery plan to Build Back Better, which includes creating an equitable, clean energy future and addressing environmental injustice. To truly Build Back Better, the incoming administration must form an economy and society free of fossil fuels. This means taking a bold and urgent step that diverges from Obama-era “all-of-the-above” thinking by curbing the export of climate-wrecking oil and fossil gas. 

Congress lifted a decades-long ban on crude oil exports after intensive industry lobbying in 2015. This gave a boost to the ongoing fracking boom, which was flooding domestic refineries with oil and gas from vast shale deposits. The pursuit of new markets fed the rapid growth of new gas expansion and exports of these “molecules of freedom” have taken off under the Trump administration: The U.S. is on track to be responsible for more than half of all new gas production in the world over the next decade and become the second largest exporter in the world. 

In November 2020, liquefied gas exports hit an all-time high, according to the research firm Rystad Energy. This was despite a tumultuous year of plunging demand as the global pandemic raged on. But fossil fuel companies have been scrambling for years to put in place the infrastructure needed to export all the oil and gas made available by the fracking frenzy, particularly from the expansive Permian Basin of Texas. November’s record-high exports accounted for 93 percent of peak gas export capacity utilization, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

President Trump has made a show of expediting gas export expansion, including fast-tracking projects like export terminals, which transform gas to liquid for overseas transport. Currently, six terminals are in operation in the U.S., with a dozen more under construction, largely on the Gulf Coast and mid-Atlantic region. A recent report from Environmental Integrity Project showed how plans for 12 new terminals and five expansions have the potential to emit over 67 million tons of greenhouse gases (GHG) per year — the equivalent of at least 16 coal-fired power plants operating around the clock for a year. 

To justify the push for gas expansion, the fossil fuel industry continues to peddle the myth that it is a clean energy option. In reality, there is no pathway to halting the climate crisis without curbing the use of gas — despite how the industry tries to spin it. Achieving Paris Agreement goals to keep warming under 1.5 degrees celsius requires gas production and consumption to drop by 40 percent worldwide over the next decade. That is simply not compatible with the fossil fuel industry’s plans for the U.S. to export its climate pollution to Europe and Asia. 

Fossil gas notoriously leaks methane — a potent GHG — into the atmosphere at nearly every step in the supply chain. And gas requires deep investments in infrastructure like import and export terminals — locking economies into a reliance on more dirty energy. There is no room for the Biden administration to enable the false notion that gas is congruent with a clean energy future.  

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have also made environmental justice an explicit roadmap of their plans toward economic recovery and climate action. To uphold these promises, they cannot ignore the health and social costs for communities that bear the brunt of continued oil and gas extraction fed by fossil fuel exports, as well as the toxic pollution emitted from processing facilities like export terminals.

Consider a terminal proposed in New Jersey’s Gibbstown along the Delaware River. Each day, between 3 and 4 million gallons of liquefied gas would travel by truck or rail from northeastern Pennsylvania through the Philadelphia metro area in “bomb trains,” so called for their potential explosive capacity — enough to level an entire city. After arriving at Gibbstown — an already heavily contaminated area — the volatile gas would be loaded on ships that would sail past low-income neighborhoods and coastal refuges. Reaching its destination in the Caribbean and elsewhere the gas would be burned, exacerbating the climate breakdown that already disproportionately harms marginalized communities and small island nations.   

Curbing fossil fuel exports would be a bold move for Biden, who faces major industry pushback and who so far has appeared ambivalent. During the campaign he vaguely stated, “I think we should [ban fossil fuel exports], in fact, depending on what it is they’re exporting for what they’re replacing.” But make no mistake: what “they’re exporting” are climate-wrecking pollutants that jeopardize the health of our planet and our communities. 

Biden has the authority to reinstate a ban on crude oil exports under a national emergency declaration, which over 380 groups including Global Witness are calling on him to enact on day one. He should also halt fossil gas exports to the extent possible under existing law.

There is no denying that this administration is entering office on a precipice, with democracy under siege, an economy on the brink, and the pandemic raging on. Underneath it all, climate breakdown is the destabilizing force that will not wait for humanity to rise to the occasion. This must be the year our leaders act with the bold urgency this moment requires.

Mike Davis is CEO of Global Witness, an organization that challenges abuses of power to protect human rights and secure the future of our planet. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelpmdavis.

Tags biden administration Biden climate policy Build Back Better Climate change Climate justice climate solutions Donald Trump Environmental justice Fossil fuels gas Joe Biden liquified natural gas Paris agreement

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