Despite the Biden administration’s vows to fight climate change, the U.S. is currently embarking on a major effort to build out fossil fuel infrastructure following the war in Ukraine—with potentially disastrous climate results.
A report released last week from the Environmental Integrity Project finds that 25 proposed and in-development liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals in the U.S. have the potential to release as much greenhouse gases each year as 18 million gas-powered cars—roughly equivalent to all of the cars in Florida.
“Although there is pressure to hurry up approvals of these LNG projects, government regulators should be careful and thoughtful in considering their significant environmental impacts,” Alexandra Shaykevich, research manager at the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a statement. “A dramatic increase in global dependence on LNG could be risky, from a climate perspective.”
LNG is the common term for liquefied natural gas, a form of natural gas that has been cooled to a liquid, giving it a volume around 600 times smaller than the natural gas that runs through a pipeline. The liquid composition of LNG makes it possible to transport it to places where pipelines can’t reach—including, importantly, being shipped overseas.
Before 2015, the U.S. exported almost no LNG. But during the fracking boom of the last decade, the U.S. became one of the world’s top exporters, reaching record high exports last year as Europe’s natural gas supplies ran low. The war in Ukraine has substantially increased demand for U.S. LNG, leading to huge increases in exports during the first half of this year. Since the Russian invasion at the end of February, at least 19 major LNG agreements have been signed by U.S. suppliers, while three major LNG projects have been approved or have moved forward with construction. By the end of 2022, the Energy Information Administration predicts, the U.S. will have the most LNG export capacity of any country in the world.
But all these facilities—and the new ones that are sure to come as the boom continues—have serious climate ramifications. In this report, the Environmental Integrity Project analyzed 25 new, proposed, and expanding LNG projects, based on public documents housed at the Oil and Gas Watch website. That number includes four export terminals under construction in Texas and Louisiana; six new terminals and three expansions that have the required permits but haven’t started construction in Louisiana, Texas, and Florida; and 10 new terminals and two expansions that are awaiting the required approvals in Alaska, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
According to numbers that are included in the permits and proposed permits for these facilities, all together, they have the potential to release more than 90 million tons of greenhouse gases a year. That number includes 27.3 million tons from facilities currently under construction, 25.6 million tons from facilities that have gotten permits but haven’t started construction, and 37.7 million tons from facilities awaiting approval.
This 90 million figure is also deceptively low: The greenhouse gas emissions included in permits for these terminals and expansions are just from operating the plants, not from producing the gas or using it. There are currently just seven terminals that export all of the LNG in the U.S., and those aren’t included in the analysis; together, these facilities are permitted to emit 28.3 million tons of greenhouse gases from their operation each year. (Six of these facilities, according to the report, are currently operating at maximum capacity since the war began.)
Despite these serious risks, the Biden administration in March committed to providing an additional 15 million cubic meters of LNG to Europe by the end of the year—a tall order, given that the U.S. shipped out 22 million cubic meters last year. The U.S., the administration has said, is aiming to send 50 million cubic meters to Europe by 2030. (The president claimed in his announcement of the plan that the expansion of the industry “will occur in a way that is consistent with, not in conflict with, the net-zero climate goal that we’re shooting for.”)
Paradoxically, energy experts have pointed out that a mass build-out of LNG infrastructure won’t actually help solve the short-term energy crisis the world is facing—despite sustained messaging from the fossil fuel industry that they’re the only ones who can fix things. Many of the facilities that have been greenlit or proposed since the war started won’t actually be up and running until later this decade. By the time they come online and start exporting gas, Europe, which has been working hard since the war began to cut its natural gas use and increase energy efficiency and renewable use, may not be such an eager customer.
Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found that all the fossil fuel infrastructure in place today is enough to push us to dangerous levels of warming, and in order to stave off the worst of climate change, the world needs to immediately stop building any kind of fossil fuel infrastructure. But with plans like the U.S. has for LNG, that goal looks even more out of reach.