As the Biden Administration contemplates its next big climate decision, a new study reveals a startling truth: exporting U.S. fracked gas could be far more harmful to the climate than coal. This finding challenges the long-held view of natural gas as a relatively cleaner energy source and puts the spotlight on the environmental impact of the United States’ liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry.
Robert Warren Howarth, a Cornell University professor and renowned methane scientist, has presented data that could significantly influence this critical decision. His analysis focuses on the greenhouse gas footprint of LNG exported to Europe and Asia, revealing that the overall impact of LNG, from production to combustion, is potentially 24 percent worse for the climate than coal. In the most detrimental scenarios, this figure could soar to an astonishing 274 percent.
The root cause of this alarming impact lies in the extensive methane leaks throughout the LNG export process. These leaks occur at every stage, from fracking wells to pipelines, liquefaction stations, and during transport. Notably, even when LNG is compressed aboard modern tankers, a portion of the supercooled gas “boils off,” escaping into the atmosphere.
The expansion of LNG infrastructure in the US stands as one of the most significant fossil fuel developments globally. If all planned LNG export terminals come to fruition, they could contribute an additional 3.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, rivaling the entire annual emissions of the European Union.
Despite these findings, the LNG industry, represented by companies like Venture Global, insists on the environmental benefits of LNG, positioning it as a cleaner alternative to coal and a key to global energy security. However, Howarth’s research directly challenges this claim, indicating that LNG could actually increase global emissions.
This development in the U.S.’s LNG industry has been rapid. Since 2016, when the first significant cargoes of LNG left Gulf Coast facilities, the US has risen to become the world’s largest natural gas exporter. Currently, seven major export terminals operate along the Gulf Coast, with at least twenty more in the planning stages.
The political implications of these findings are significant. Howarth’s study puts pressure on the Biden Administration to reconsider the expansion of the LNG industry. Approving more LNG infrastructure could lock in high emissions for decades, undermining global efforts to combat climate change.
In conclusion, this new data on the environmental impact of U.S. LNG exports presents a formidable challenge to the perception of natural gas as a ‘cleaner’ fossil fuel. It underscores the urgent need to transition towards renewable energy sources and reevaluate current energy policies in light of their long-term climate impacts.