The Biden Administration faces one of its most profound climate choices this autumn: Should it continue to allow the expansion of liquefied-natural-gas exports, or should it halt the rapid buildout of this industry at least until it can come up with new guidelines? The stakes are enormous—the buildout of L.N.G. infrastructure in the United States is by far the largest example of fossil-fuel expansion currently proposed anywhere in the world. But there’s some new data that may make the Administration’s choice easier—or certainly starker.
The data are from an analysis by Robert Warren Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell who is one of the world’s premier methane scientists. The analysis attempts to establish the greenhouse-gas footprint of L.N.G. exported to Europe and Asia, and the numbers presented are astonishing. Coal-fired power has long been the standard for measuring climate damage: when burned, coal releases carbon dioxide into the air in large quantities. In recent years, Howarth has demonstrated that, domestically, natural gas is no better for the climate than coal, largely owing to the methane leaks associated with it; now, though, it appears that exporting L.N.G., because of the extra leakage of the supercooled gas during transit, could allow even larger amounts of methane to escape into the atmosphere and, hence, could do much more damage to the climate than coal does. The leaks come at every stage of the process, Howarth explains. Even once the gas is compressed aboard ship in insulated tanks, some of it “boils off” as heat leaks through the insulation. Newer tankers try to burn that boiled-off methane for fuel, but even then, Howarth says, some of it is emitted unburned in the exhaust stream. He notes, “It all adds up.”
Howarth models a number of different scenarios, varying for how far the L.N.G. travels and how much methane might be released. According to his calculations, even when the gas is delivered with the most modern ship, taking the most direct route, the greenhouse-gas emissions from the entire ground-to-combustion life cycle of L.N.G.—from the fracking wells, to the pipelines, the liquefaction stations, the ships, and the final combustion—are twenty-four per cent worse than those caused by digging up and burning an equivalent amount of coal. (The worst cases—long voyages in old vessels burning lots of oil—show an impact two hundred and seventy-four per cent worse.) Howarth, however, is careful to point out that, though his paper has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, the review process has not yet been completed. “It is always possible I have made a mistake or two,” he told me. “Hopefully not large.” But, assuming that the thrust of the data stands, it undercuts the L.N.G. proponents’ key argument—that at least it’s cleaner than coal. Howarth concludes his paper by saying that “ending the use of LNG must be a global priority.”
As I wrote earlier this year, L.N.G. exportation is relatively new for the United States. The first big cargoes didn’t leave facilities on the Gulf Coast (close to the Permian Basin, one of the largest repositories of gas in the world) until 2016. But the industry has grown rapidly, and the U.S. is now the largest exporter of natural gas in the world. So far, seven big export terminals have been built, most of them along the Gulf Coast, and at least twenty more are planned. According to the energy consultant and former Environmental Protection Agency climate-policy adviser Jeremy Symons, if all of them are built, they will be associated with an extra 3.2 billion tons of greenhouse-gas emissions annually, which is close to the entire annual emissions of the European Union, from every car and house and factory from the northernmost Finnish village to the southernmost Greek isle. “It’s an unbelievable amount of pollution and it would spell game over for a livable planet as we’ve known it,” Symons recently told the Guardian.
Faced with such findings, the industry has fallen back on claims about relative, as opposed to absolute, emissions. After my previous piece appeared, a spokesperson for Venture Global, the company behind the largest of the proposed export terminals on the Gulf, said that “the well-funded environmental activists opposing CP2 and all US LNG projects are completely out of touch with reality.” She added, “Ironically, Mr. McKibben and other activists who claim to want to lower global emissions are actually advocating for restricting access to a cleaner form of energy and denying energy security to millions of people. This would only result in continued and increased coal use and prevent the reduction of global emissions.”