For years, the petroleum industry has been trying to push liquefied natural gas as a clean energy source, or at least a cleaner energy source than other fossil fuels, touting its role as a stepping stone or ‘bridge fuel’ between higher-emissions fuels and clean energy in the decarbonization transition. But recent research shows that LNG may not always be cleaner than coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.
The debate over whether LNG is in reality a cleaner alternative to other fossil fuels has been reengaged in recent months as the Biden administration has announced that it will pause approvals of new licenses to export liquefied natural gas. Last Friday, President Joe Biden announced that during this freeze the United States Department of Energy will review and assess whether the nation’s considerable LNG exports are “undermining domestic energy security, raising consumer costs and damaging the environment.”
This pause will have widespread implications for global energy markets, as the United States was the single biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas in the world in 2023. According to LSEG data, full year exports from the U.S. rose 14.7% to 88.9 million metric tons (MT), but from 77.5 million metric tons in 2022.
As the Biden administration's decision to pause new approvals makes waves around global energy markets, it’s also caused a major resurgence of the natural gas debate in scientific circles. We now know that natural gas is much more harmful for the environment than initially thought, but there is widespread disagreement about to what extent, and whether pausing exports is actually the right move for the environment.
In December 2023, 170 climate scientists signed onto a letter petitioning President Joe Biden to reject all plans to build more LNG export terminals going forward, and especially along the Gulf of Mexico. Their argument was based on the finding that, in stark contrast to the dominant energy transition narrative, liquefied gas is actually “at least 24 percent worse for the climate than coal.” This figure comes from a forthcoming Cornell University study (which has not yet been peer reviewed).
The issue is not really the consumption of the natural gas itself, but emissions associated with the life cycle of liquefied natural gas production. The Cornell University figure comes from figuring in the carbon dioxide emissions that result from the liquefying process, which requires chilling natural gas to extremely cold temperatures, an energy-intensive ordeal.
Another major issue is the methane that is released during the extraction of natural gas. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. While it breaks up much more quickly in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it is 80 times more potent at warming than CO2 over a 20-year period. And peer–reviewed studies (like this one, this one, and this one) are increasingly indicating that natural gas produces much, much more methane over its life cycle than previously thought.
But other experts contend that these figures, while peer-reviewed, are politically motivated and the figures are inflated or skewed to tell a certain narrative that’s not necessarily consistent with reality. “It's just extremely frustrating to even deal with claims like this, because we talk about settled science,” says Dan Byers, vice president of policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he works on environmental issues in a recent Scientific American report. “The notion that, you know, LNG and natural gas reduce emissions by displacing coal is completely well established. So it feels like we’ve got like a flat earth situation going on with these claims.”
A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal goes as far as to contend that the Biden administration’s new LNG export pause will actually harm the environment more than it helps. In the op-ed Chris Barnard, president of the American Conservation Coalition, argues that if the United States takes a step back from meeting global energy demands, other energy powers including Russia and China will only be too happy to fill those shoes. He argues that the result will be a more volatile geopolitical landscape as well as an increase of more carbon-intensive energy sources on the market.
As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. But the one thing that’s certain is that regardless of whether coal or LNG is cleaner, clean energy buildout will always be the cleanest. Of course, LNG will continue to have a role in stabilizing, and yes, bridging a smooth energy transition. But the quicker we can move away from it, the better.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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