LNG Exports

  • The Sierra Club and other groups are taking on US LNG exports just when LNG is gainging support as a key response to Russia's aggressive behavior in Ukraine.
  • The science behind their claims does not withstand scrutiny, and their timing couldn't be worse, geopolitically.

A collection of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and 350.org recently wrote to President Obama, urging him to require a Keystone-XL-style environmental review--presumably entailing similar delays--for the proposed Cove Point, Maryland liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal. Given the President’s explicit support for wider natural gas use and the administration's new commitment to our European allies to enable LNG exports, the hyperbole-laden letter seems likelier to rev up the groups’ activist bases than to influence the administration’s policies.

Either way, its timing could hardly be coincidental, coming just as opinion leaders across the political spectrum have seized on LNG exports as a concrete strategy for countering Russian energy leverage over Europe in the aftermath of President Putin’s seizure of Crimea. If, as the Washington Post and energy blogger Robert Rapier have suggested, the Keystone XL pipeline is the wrong battle for environmentalists, taking on LNG exports now is an even more misguided fight, at least on its merits.

Referring to unspecified ”emerging and credible analysis”, the letter evokes the thoroughly discredited argument that shale gas, pejoratively referred to here as “fracked gas”, is as bad or worse for the environment as coal. In fact, in a similar letter sent to Mr. Obama one year ago, some of the same groups cited a 2007 paper in Environmental Science & Technology that clearly showed that, even when converted into LNG, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of natural gas in electricity generation are still significantly lower than those of coal, despite the extra emissions of the liquefaction and regasification processes.

The current letter also implies that emissions from shale gas are higher than those for conventional gas, a notion convincingly dispelled by last year’s University of Texas study, sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund, that measured actual, rather than estimated or modeled, emissions from hundreds of gas wells at dozens of sites in the US.

It’s also surprising that the letter’s authors would choose to cite the International Energy Agency’s 2011 scenario report on a potential “Golden Age of Gas” in support of their claims. That’s because the IEA’s analysis found that the expanded use of gas foreseen in that scenario would reduce global emissions by 160 million CO2-equivalent tons annually by 2035, mainly through competition with coal in power generation in developing countries, addressing the principal source of global greenhouse gas emissions growth today.

The groups take another wrong turn in suggesting that President Obama increase support for wind and solar power instead of supporting gas. The contribution of new renewables to the US energy mix has grown rapidly, thanks to significant federal and state support, but it remains small. Despite record US wind turbine and solar power additions, shale gas and shale oil added more than 20 times as much energy output on an equivalent basis in 2012, and last year’s gains look similarly disproportional. Simply put, the US isn’t enjoying a return to energy security or becoming a major energy exporter because of renewables. It is counterproductive for renewables to pit them against gas as they have done here.

Experts disagree on how much and how quickly US LNG exports can influence gas markets in Europe and elsewhere. Yet while none of the currently permitted or proposed LNG facilities will be ready to ship cargoes until at least late next year, the knowledge that they are coming will inevitably have an impact on traders and contracts, including contracts for Russian gas in the EU. Whether or not US natural gas molecules ever reach Europe, they can serve a useful role in the necessary response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Attempting to block this for spurious reasons puts opponents in jeopardy of becoming what Mr. Putin in his previous career might have called “useful idiots.”

It’s tempting to speculate on what this new campaign says about the participating groups’ perceptions of how the Keystone XL fight is going. Win or lose, they might soon need a new cause, or face the dispersal of the protesters and financial contributors it has galvanized. Blocking LNG may look conveniently similar--even if similarly mistaken--but I can’t help feeling these groups would gain more traction with their fellow citizens by focusing on what they are for, rather than expending so much energy in opposition.

A different version of this posting was previously published on Energy Trends Insider.

Photo Credit: LNG Export Protests/shutterstock