Biden’s 2022 climate test
In 2021, President Biden took much-needed steps to tackle climate change and reverse four years of fossil fuel largesse from former President Trump.
Biden’s task for 2022: Prove to the country and the world that the United States can achieve his goal of cutting emissions in half this decade.
One key test of Biden’s climate resolve in 2022: liquified natural gas (LNG). The clock is ticking for Biden to get in front of the next wave of LNG expansions and out from under the fossil fuel roadmap engineered by the Trump administration.
In December, the United States became the world’s top LNG exporter. While Biden is unlikely to shut off the LNG spigots, he is now confronted with industry plans for a massive LNG expansion that if left unchecked would increase export capacity five-fold above this year’s record-breaking levels.
Biden has a responsibility under the law to only permit LNG export projects that are in the “public interest.” Many LNG companies are asking Biden for extensions after missing deadlines for permits handed out by the Trump administration, which cooked the books in favor of rubber stamping LNG projects and exempted LNG projects from National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Biden can and must do better. Biden can ensure that the proposed new wave of LNG facilities are evaluated against not only the president’s climate goals, but also his environmental justice commitments and the impact of exports on domestic energy prices.
Evaluated fairly, LNG permits will fail the “public interest” test.
Building expensive liquefaction facilities to export record-breaking amounts of fossil fuel is a big bet against the world meeting the climate goals set at the recent UN climate summit in Glasgow. LNG export facilities cost tens of billions of dollars on the expectation that they will run for decades. The climate math simply doesn’t add up if we are serious about meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement, as well as the Biden-led Global Methane Pledge.
According to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) “Net Zero by 2050” report, global LNG use must peak by 2025 and rapidly decline thereafter if we are to meet science-based climate goals. IEA warns that LNG liquefaction facilities already under construction are not needed and will produce more LNG than the world can afford to burn.
In other words, a new wave of US LNG export facilities would likely be short-lived investments that leave workers and entire communities, as well as investors, stranded when they shutter.
LNG is a triple threat to the climate: upstream methane emissions, an energy-intensive liquefaction process and CO2 emissions upon combustion combine to make LNG one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet, erasing any perceived benefit over coal and undermining the buildout of renewable energy sources.
In fact, the emissions from extraction, transport, liquefaction and re-gasification of LNG almost equal the emissions produced from burning the product, effectively doubling its climate impact.
The LNG industry knows it is in trouble and has been increasingly touting “carbon-neutral LNG.” This smells a lot like the “clean coal” marketing campaign that put wishful thinking ahead of climate reality. “Experts can’t make the math work,” reports Bloomberg Green.
Frontline communities are leading the fight against LNG facilities, which are being developed in communities of color and low-income communities that have been disproportionately bearing the brunt of toxic industrial pollution. Environmental justice leaders are urging the Biden administration to defend “sacrifice zones” against “the massive build-out of liquid natural gas facilities that further threaten these communities.”
American consumers and manufacturers are fed up with the inflationary impact that the recent surge in LNG exports has had on gas prices here at home. At a recent hearing, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a normally reliable supporter of the gas industry, sounded the alarm that LNG is causing consumers to “pay a higher price here so that companies are allowed to export their products and make higher profit overseas.”
LNG exports are “clearly putting a burden on U.S. businesses and homeowners,” Energy Information Administration’s Acting Administrator Stephen Nalley confirmed at the hearing.
The LNG debate within the Biden administration could swing either way in 2022. Some Democrats strongly favor LNG as a diplomatic tool. Those arguments fade, however, when looking at the central issue facing Biden: whether to greenlight the next wave of LNG expansions.
The long-term contracts that are spurring plans for new export capacity are coming from China, not NATO allies. In 2021, U.S. LNG exports to China tripled as they became the world’s biggest importer of LNG. European nations have also started rejecting U.S. LNG contracts as inconsistent with their own climate goals.
At the Glasgow climate summit, Biden told the world that “the profound questions before us, it’s simple: Will we act?”
We must. Not only when it is diplomatically convenient, but whenever the climate science and math are clear.
The year 2022 is Biden’s opportunity to stop the rush to expand U.S. LNG exports before it’s too late.
Jeremy Symons is principal of Symons Public Affairs. He was the project manager of Climate 21, a blueprint for “whole-of-government” presidential climate leadership. He previously worked at Environmental Defense Fund and for Democrats in the United States Senate.