Connect with us

Infra

U.S. natural gas expansion would surrender world to fatal warming, experts say

Published

on

  • The United States is planning a major expansion of its export infrastructure for liquified natural gas (LNG), a fossil fuel mostly containing methane. Public outcry in the U.S. over the risk to the global climate forced U.S. President Joe Biden to pause the LNG permitting process for reconsideration in January.
  • However, the U.S. continues investing billions in new LNG infrastructure abroad. Scientists and climate activists around the globe are warning that LNG expansion renders U.S. climate commitments unreachable, locks in fossil fuel emissions for decades and could trigger catastrophic warming.
  • LNG emits more than coal when exported due to massive leaks of methane into the atmosphere during oceanic transport, a preprint study has found. Another report estimates that emissions from planned U.S. LNG exports, if all 12 facilities are approved, would total 10% of the world’s current greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Climate impacts around the world would be severe, scientists say. Drought in Europe, for example, is already leading to higher food and energy prices, creating conditions for poverty even in developed nations, while a tipping point in the Amazon Rainforest could lead to mass deaths due to extreme heat and humidity.

As U.S. politicians, the oil industry and environmental activists debate the pros and cons of a massive expansion of the nation’s export infrastructure for liquified natural gas (LNG) — a fossil fuel made primarily of methane — the world’s climate teeters on the brink, with scientific experts the world over lining up against the expansion.

In January, the Biden administration responded to concerns about climate impacts and domestic energy costs by temporarily halting licenses for new LNG export facilities. But the nation, which until 2016 had a ban on gas exports, is already on track to double its output by 2030 solely with the already-authorized and under-construction terminals.

A U.S. natural gas fracking boom resulted in the country’s first export terminal in 2016; there are now seven active terminals, with five more under construction. If Biden ultimately approves licensing, 12 proposed LNG facilities could go ahead. Over a 20-year period, methane released to the atmosphere is 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide.

French climate activists protest the influx of U.S. LNG in September 2023. Experts say the move from Russian to American gas is not solving the region’s energy dependence, while worsening impacts of climate change on its citizens. Image © Jean Nicholas Guillo/Greenpeace.

LNG could turbocharge the climate emergency

Greenlighting licenses for more gas export infrastructure could mean up to a fourfold increase in export capacity and effectively locks in LNG dependence in Europe and other regions for decades, committing millions of tons of methane to an already overheated planet, critics of the U.S. expansion say.

“It is as if they don’t realize that the climate emergency is a terrible climate war that kills millions of people,” Carlos Nobre, co-chair of the Science Panel for the Amazon and a senior climate researcher at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, said in a telephone interview. “Heat waves kill more people today than all the world’s wars.”

A NASA analysis found that 2023 was the warmest year on record, with the Earth’s average surface temperature measured at 1.4° Celsius (2.5° Fahrenheit) higher than preindustrial levels. Still, greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase nine years after the 2015 Paris Agreement, in which world leaders committed to halving global emissions by 2030 to keep humanity safely under a 1.5°C (2.7°F) limit.

Coupled with the 2023 approval of oil and gas exploration in Alaska, U.S. emissions reduction goals are severely off track, and LNG export expansion could result in an international knock-on effect of reduced climate action. “The political message is terrible,” Nobre said. “The United States undermines [emission reduction] calls that could be made on other countries by adopting these measures.”

Developed nations have yet to meet their $100-billion-a-year pledge for fighting climate change. But spending for war and fossil fuel subsidies is in the trillions per year.

In the Amazon, global heating above 2°C (3.6°F) combined with a loss of a further 3% of the rainforest to deforestation could push the ecosystem past a point of no return, Nobre warned, resulting in an irreversible biome tipping point that could see the demise of up to 70% of the rainforest, the release of huge amounts of forest-stored carbon, mass biodiversity extinction and a region largely uninhabitable for its 30 million citizens.

“Millions of Amazonians would face a huge risk of the local climate surpassing the limits of the human body — experiencing temperatures and humidity so high that the body is unable to dissipate heat,” Nobre added in a follow-up email, citing a 2021 Nature Communications study he co-authored. “In these conditions, infants and the elderly can only survive for 30 minutes. Two hours for healthy adults.”

An oil and gas complex in Texas in December 2020.
Demand for liquified natural gas infrastructure in the U.S. is soaring, following a 2016 lift of an LNG export ban. Pictured, an oil and gas complex in Texas in December 2020. Image © Aaron M. Sprecher/Greenpeace.

The better fossil fuel myth

Fossil fuel industry advocates have long promoted natural gas as a greener, cleaner fossil fuel. A Volkswagen energy subsidiary advertises LNG as “the fuel for change … a perfect transition fuel on the path to clean energy.” One executive went as far as calling LNG a “destination fuel.”

Unlike coal, burning LNG doesn’t produce soot and other dangerous air pollutants. And it releases less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels such as gasoline or diesel when burned by the end consumer.

But LNG has a flaw as a climate solution unspoken of by the industry that wants to export it: Many of its emissions don’t come from burning.

According to a preprint study submitted for peer review in October 2023, tons of methane gas are released into the atmosphere during transport. Under the best conditions — a transatlantic trip to Europe with the most modern ships available today — the greenhouse gases emitted by LNG are still 12.3% worse than coal. A long-haul route to Asia with an older tanker emits at least twice as much as coal.

“It’s just totally the wrong direction,” study author Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor who has researched LNG for decades, said in a telephone interview. “The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] is telling us that we probably should cut our use of fossil fuels in the United States by half within the next decade, and instead, we’re now the world’s largest producer of natural gas.”

Graph showing U.S. LNG exports per month
United States LNG exports have increased from zero in 2016 to more than 8 million metric tons in 2023, despite the nation’s climate commitments to reduce fossil fuel investments and emissions. Image courtesy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Support for U.S. allies

The Biden administration has stated that its motivation for exporting LNG is to secure energy for its allies, namely European nations, in the face of geopolitical conflicts with Russia arising from its invasion of Ukraine. But with U.S. LNG coming at higher cost and meaning more emissions, European energy experts say a switch from Russian to American gas will only create new problems. It could even hinder a rapid shift to alternative energy sources to meet an EU goal of slashing emissions by 90% by 2040.

“Replacing Russian gas with American gas does not solve Europe’s energy dependence,” Yamina Saheb, an IPCC report author and energy and climate researcher at Sciences Po in Paris, told Mongabay in a telephone interview. “We could have [Donald] Trump again and he is already threatening us, threatening his NATO allies.”

United States LNG exports reached an all-time high in December 2023, with 8.6 million metric tons leaving American ports — 61% sold to Europe at a cost up to 40% higher than Russian gas.

The money the European Union has spent on gas imports, Saheb said, could have been better invested on renovating and insulating European homes. Since most natural gas in the EU goes toward heating, better insulation could permanently reduce emissions and consumer costs.

“The closer we get to 1.5°C warming, the higher the impacts of climate change are on the people. One of the impacts is, for example, now there is no snow in Europe,” Saheb added. Ice in the Alps is melting, putting water supplies at risk. Drought is assailing Spain and Italy, which produce much of Europe’s fruit and vegetables. “You have food prices going up, energy prices going up and housing prices going up. We could see poverty in Europe, true poverty,” she warned.

For Howarth, even reopening “mothballed coal plants” to address a short-term energy crisis, would be preferable to committing to decades of LNG: “Coal’s dirty, but for a year or three in crisis, while we move to a better world, why not? LNG is worse for the climate than coal anyway, and this massive infrastructure buildup locks us into the wrong approach for far longer.”

Natural gas emits more than coal when liquified and shipped across oceans, recent research found.
Natural gas emits more than coal when liquified and shipped across oceans, recent research found. The energy-intensive process of liquifying and cooling combined with the leaked methane makes LNG one of the most environmentally damaging energy sources today. Image © Tim Aubry/Greenpeace.

U.S. investments in LNG worldwide

While the U.S. government pauses to consider a big boost in LNG export capacity, it continues making major investments into LNG in other countries, including those already hard-hit by climate change. In 2019, the U.S. Export-Import Bank (EXIM) put almost $5 billion toward a huge LNG project in Mozambique, construction that has destroyed forests, shorelines and wetlands in the country’s northernmost region, Cabo Delgado.

Now EXIM is planning on backing a $10 to $13 billion project led by multinational oil corporations in Papua New Guinea, adding to at least $6 billion the public financial institution has funneled into fossil fuel projects since 2017.

The Papua LNG project includes nine production wells, four electric liquefaction trains, a gas processing plant and a 320-kilometer (199-mile) pipeline cutting through the coastal Gulf province. Meanwhile, several of Papua New Guinea’s islands are losing land yearly to rising sea levels, and entire communities in the Gulf’s Orokolo Bay area are losing their homes.

Owen Vaii, one of the leaders of the Elema Mai Lavi Council of Chiefs representing 600 clans in the region, told a local newspaper: “We are not receiving or seeing any tangible benefit coming from the developer, provincial government or the National Government. And yet, our land, water way and resources are being extracted, impacted and disrupted.”

The greenhouse gas emissions resulting from allowing all currently proposed U.S. LNG projects to export gas could reach an estimated 3.9 billion metric tons per year, surpassing the entire annual carbon emissions of the European Union. All the world’s emissions in 2022 totaled 36.8 billion metric tons.

For many critics around the globe, a Biden administration LNG pause is not enough, even if a signal in the right direction. “If we would like to get rid of fossil fuels, we need to forbid in law any new exploration and any new infrastructure,” said Saheb.

Banner image: Specially designed vessels are required to transport LNG, which needs to be cooled to minus 162 °F (minus 260° F) in order to liquify and compress the gas while in transit. At destination terminals, the LNG is returned to its gaseous state and carried via pipeline to distribution companies. Image by photozou.jp via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.1 JP).

Beyond climate: Oil, gas and coal are destabilizing all 9 planetary boundaries

Citations:

Global Methane Assessment: Benefits and Costs of Mitigating Methane Emissions. (2021). Retrieved from United Nations Environment Programme website: https://www.ccacoalition.org/sites/default/files/resources//2021_Global-Methane_Assessment_full_0.pdf

Broken Record. (2023). Retrieved from United Nations Environment Programme website: https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/43922/EGR2023.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y

Alves de Oliveira, B. F., Bottino, M. B., Nobre, P., & Nobre, C. A. (2021). Deforestation and climate change are projected to increase heat stress risk in the Brazilian Amazon. Communications Earth & Environment. doi:10.1038/s43247-021-00275-8

Howarth, R. (2024). The Greenhouse Gas Footprint of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Exported from the United States. preprint. Retrieved from https://www.research.howarthlab.org/publications/Howarth_LNG_assessment_preprint_archived_2023-1103.pdf

Huber, C. J., Eichler, A., Mattea, E., Brütsch, S., Jenk, T. M., Gabrieli, J., … Schwikowski, M. (2024). High-altitude glacier archives lost due to climate change-related melting. Nature Geoscience, 17(2), 110-113. doi:10.1038/s41561-023-01366-1

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

, , ,

Print

Continue Reading