Administration officials insist that emergency moves being announced Friday, including a possible infusion of liquefied natural gas from the U.S., won’t derail long-term climate goals. Yet it’s causing friction with environmentalists who see it as a betrayal.
“President Biden campaigned on bold and ambitious goals to tackle the climate crisis and environmental injustice,” said Kelly Sheehan, the Sierra Club’s director of energy campaigns. “Supporting the push to expand gas exports and lock in decades of fossil fuel production is directly in conflict with these goals.”
Biden has called for shifting away from fossil fuels and effectively phasing out the use of natural gas in power plants by 2035. But now the administration is embracing the fuel as it seeks to help supply its European allies with energy amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy acknowledged Thursday that Europe’s current energy needs had taken precedence over climate goals in the short term. Asked how the administration was balancing the two, she said, “We’re actually not balancing right now.”
“Right now, we’re working on an emergency problem that the EU and we have on energy prices and security,” McCarthy said on the sidelines of a renewable energy summit in Washington. “But our goals remain the same — and that’s clean energy.”
Friday’s declaration with the European Union is intended to build on steps the Biden administration has already taken to get more American LNG to overseas allies.
The Department of Energy last week gave Cheniere Energy Inc. permission to boost exports to Europe. And administration officials have worked to encourage buyers of American LNG to forgo some contracted cargoes so they could be diverted to Europe.
Natural gas has presented difficult choices for Biden. It emits about half the planet-warming gases as coal, a fuel source that it is rapidly displacing. Natural gas is now responsible for generating more than a third of the nation’s electricity, and it is abundant in politically important states such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
But environmentalists and progressives have pushed for a ban on its export, arguing, in part, that extraction and transportation of natural gas creates its own environmental problems including leaks of methane, a potent planet-warming gas.
Industry advocates argue that U.S. supplies are more sustainably extracted and transported — with fewer overall greenhouse gas emissions — than shipments from Russia and other nations. And they say U.S. natural gas will continue to help developing countries shift away from coal-fired power even after the EU’s transition.
“As we continue on our path to a lower-emissions future and aim for net-zero emissions by 2050, natural gas will play a critical role in meeting those targets,” said the American Gas Association and other groups in a Wednesday letter to Biden. “Working together, we believe the natural gas industry will be key to helping this nation and our allies.”
Environmentalists are imploring Biden not to sacrifice his climate goals now by streamlining permits for drilling, gas pipelines and LNG export facilities.
“The climate emergency isn’t going away,” said Kate DeAngelis, international finance program director at Friends of the Earth. “Because one country invades another doesn’t change the fact that these impacts of climate change are going to continue to happen.”
And activists warn there is no way to make Biden’s climate goals compatible with a short-term infusion of natural gas supply and infrastructure. Multibillion-dollar investments in new facilities to convert gas into a liquid so it can be shipped globally take years to pay off, and LNG exporters will want to keep using them long after the current crisis has abated.
“Expanding natural gas infrastructure is a death blow for the climate,” and the Biden administration “must reject the oil and gas industry’s cynical ploy to lock in decades of fossil fuel dependence,” said Collin Rees, U.S. program manager for Oil Change International. “Building new LNG infrastructure would destroy any hope of reaching global climate goals and maintaining a safe future.”
But Fred Hutchison, president of the advocacy group LNG Allies, said that Europe’s transition away from all fossil fuels would take well into the 2030s, and even after that, the developing world will keep using natural gas.
Investments in LNG exports today “will prove to be, in my opinion, very valuable assets that help the world continue to move off of coal and toward a zero-carbon future,” Hutchison said.