When environmentalists look back on 2022, they may remember it as the year the U.S. finally passed major climate change legislation. However, some advocates worry that this remarkable success has been undermined by the long-term trend.
In the first half of the year, the United States became the world’s top exporter of liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Then, in September, crude oil exports hit an all-time high when the country exported about 4 million barrels a day.
A sharp rise in crude oil and natural gas exports has spanned three successive presidential administrations with a bipartisan consensus that each has viewed energy exports as a lever of foreign policy. After all, it’s the culmination of a sustained campaign by the oil industry, which has seen production rise even as domestic demand for its fuels risks falling.
“This is about the industry staking a claim for a future role,” said Josh Axelrod, senior environmental program attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He pointed out that domestic gasoline consumption has plateaued or begun to decline, and natural gas use is expected to follow suit soon. “There’s no room for oil growth in the U.S. market, so one of their many tactics is to remain active and grow, even as climate change worsens, to protect export locations and capacity,” Axelrod said.
In the first nine months of 2022, the U.S. exported 30 percent of its crude oil production and more than 15 percent of its natural gas, according to Energy Information Administration data, up from a fraction a decade ago. (Because of the nature of US refineries, the country imported almost as much oil and petroleum products as it exported.)
Exports are expected to continue to rise over the years. In the final months of 2022, the Biden administration approved the construction of the country’s largest oil export terminal, scheduled to begin operations by the end of 2025, and another LNG export terminal. Seven LNG export terminals are now operational and three more are under construction.
These export projects are clustered along the Louisiana and Texas Gulf Coast, many of which are communities with high percentages of black and Latino residents already concentrated with polluting oil and gas terminals and petrochemical plants.
“These communities don’t need it anymore,” said Roysetta Ocean, a community organizer for an environmental group in southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas, Healthy Bay. Ocean lives within about 30 miles of two LNG terminals and several chemical plants very close by. She said her situation is mostly low-income communities and people of color.
Osane noted that the Biden administration has a goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but is approving new LNG terminals that are expected to operate for decades.
“How does that lead to net-zero emissions?” Osane said.
An increase in fossil fuel exports will offset some of the domestic emissions reductions resulting from the Inflation Act, Climate, Tax and Health Care bills passed in August. Because of the energy required to liquefy natural gas by cooling it to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, LNG terminals are major polluters independent of the emissions produced by the gas when it is burned in power plants or homes. Sabine Pass, the nation’s largest terminal, emitted 5.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021, about 1.5 times that of an average-sized coal-fired power plant, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The impacts of these terminals’ operations on global emissions are difficult to quantify. Gas companies have argued that LNG exports could actually reduce global emissions if they help replace coal-fired power plants abroad.
“Rising geopolitical and market instability has led to increased global demand for U.S. energy,” said Scott Lauerman, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute. There’s a chance.”
But a 2020 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council said LNG’s gains are far better. Exporting LNG from the U.S. to Europe or Asia and using it to generate electricity emits 30 percent fewer climate-warming gases than burning coal over a 20-year period.
Samantha Gross, director of the energy security and climate initiative at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C., argued that exports would no doubt increase emissions in the U.S., but that would be offset by declines elsewhere. He said that if countries don’t buy oil or gas from the United States, they will buy it from another country.
“There’s plenty of oil and gas in the world,” Gross said.
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U.S. gas exports are helping European countries wean off Russian gas in the short term, but Europe and the Biden administration are struggling to increase supplies today while maintaining a long-term goal of reducing emissions, Gross said.
“We’re in a weird moment where we like fossil fuels in the short term, but we don’t like them in the long term,” he said. “We just couldn’t figure out how to put those two pieces together.”
White House spokesman Nicholas Conger said in an emailed statement: “We are taking steps to help partners navigate severe energy shocks. But the moment illustrates the imperative to improve energy efficiency, diversify suppliers and transition to clean energy as quickly as possible. As the President underscored, ultimately, true energy security will require an accelerated global clean energy transition — which is why we’re making historic investments today in clean energy deployment and technologies that power the future.
Some environmentalists say the energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is forcing the gas industry to build terminals and sign contracts to ensure fossil fuels continue to flow for decades. For example, an LNG terminal approved today may not come online for several years and may continue to operate well into mid-century.
“When it comes to liquefied natural gas, President Biden has a clear blind spot,” said Lucas Ross, project manager for the advocacy group Friends of the Earth. “What if the US becomes an even more exporting power with a carbon-free power sector by 2035?”
The increase in export capacity appears to cement a difficult position for Biden, or any US president, as he tries to accelerate the global transition to cleaner energy. The United States is now the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, and production is expected to rise, not fall.