US administration pauses natural gas projects

30 January 2024

President Biden’s administration has stopped the USA’s surging exports of gas, effectively pausing a string of planned projects that have been characterised by environmentalists as carbon ‘mega bombs’ that risk pushing the world further towards climate breakdown.

On 26 January, the White House announced that it was pausing all pending export permits for liquefied natural gas (LNG) until the Department of Energy could come up with updated criteria for approvals that consider the impact of climate change.

The pause, which will continue beyond November’s presidential election, could imperil the future of more than a dozen gas export terminals that have been planned for the Gulf of Mexico coast. But according to one analysis, if all proposed LNG projects were to go ahead and ship gas overseas, it will result in the emission of 3.2 bn tons of greenhouse gases – equivalent to the entire emissions total of the European Union.

A vigorous campaign by climate activists and local residents has pressed president Biden to curb the rapid growth of LNG exports, pointing to its contribution to global heating and the direct pollution suffered by surrounding communities. The pause will allow his administration to “take a hard look at the impacts of LNG exports on energy costs, America’s energy security, and our environment”. “This pause on new LNG approvals sees the climate crisis for what it is – the existential threat of our time,” Biden said, adding that Republicans who support ever-expanding fossil fuel infrastructure “wilfully deny the urgency of the climate crisis”.

The halt on permits isn’t absolute – the White House said exceptions would be made for “unanticipated and immediate national security emergencies” and that its allies in Europe will continue to receive the gas they need to help reduce dependence upon Russia, following its invasion of Ukraine.

But activists hailed the decision as a landmark victory that showed the climate crisis will no longer be ignored in previously routine decisions to allow oil and gas projects to proceed. “This announcement … is a powerful statement that we can no longer allow these industries to continue operating without considering the health and safety of the people living in these areas,”said Roishetta Ozane, an activist in Louisiana, where much of the LNG buildout is happening.

Meanwhile others promised to continue pushing the Biden administration to go further. “This is a bold and important step from president Biden, but the fight is just beginning,” said Lukas Ross, climate and energy deputy director at Friends of the Earth. “The climate movement is in this fight for the long haul until the LNG boom is stopped dead in its tracks.”

The US started exporting gas only in 2016 but is now the largest such exporter in the world, with a boom of new export terminals and pipelines sprouting up on the Gulf of Mexico coast. A planned facility in Louisiana, called Calcasieu Pass 2 (or CP2), would be one of the largest in the world, shipping 24m tons of gas a year once built.

Supporters of the industry, including Donald Trump, contend that exports aid countries in Europe, create jobs and help displace coal, a dirtier fuel, as an energy source overseas. A coalition of oil and gas industry groups has written to the Biden administration to complain a pause would “only bolster Russian influence” and risk American jobs.

However, various analyses have shown much of the gas is not bound for European allies and that the surging exports have pushed up domestic gas prices for Americans. By some measures LNG can be seen as an even bigger carbon polluter than coal, a recent scientific paper argued, when leaking emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from the drilling, transport and shipping of the commodity are taken into account.

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