Environmentalists to Obama: Delay decision on gas exports

Environmentalists are urging the Obama administration to further delay decisions on whether to allow more companies to export natural gas harvested inside of the United States.

An array of environmental groups made the plea in a letter to President Barack Obama on Tuesday.

Unlike some manufacturers worried that expanded gas exports will hike costs of the raw material they transform into chemicals and plastics, the environmentalists’ chief concern is that selling natural gas overseas will drive up demand for the fossil fuel — and the drilling activity that is key to producing it.

“This drilling expansion would cause a substantial increase in emissions of methane, which is a powerful climate-disrupting pollutant,” the groups told Obama. “That additional methane, along with the increased energy needed to produce and transport (liquefied natural gas) makes it the most carbon-intensive form of natural gas on a life-cycle basis. LNG exports thus risk worsening climate change.”

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A similar climate change argument has been advanced against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would transport synthetic crude and diluted bitumen from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, because Canada’s oil sands crude is harvested using particularly energy-intensive techniques that come with higher carbon dioxide emissions. Environmentalists opposed to that project say the pipeline would increase demand for the oil sands crude, spurring its development and consequently sending more heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

More than a dozen companies have asked the Energy Department for licenses to export liquefied natural gas to countries that do not have free-trade agreements with the United States. But after approving one permit — for Houston’s Cheniere Energy — the department decided to postpone subsequent decisions until it thoroughly examined the economic effects of expanded exports.

But the Energy Department has not said it will broadly weigh environmental factors as part of the licensing process.

The green groups, including the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, Friends of the Earth and The Wilderness Society, insist that kind of environmental study is essential.

“Deciding whether and how to move forward with LNG exports is among the most pressing environmental and energy policy decisions facing the nation,” the groups said. “Yet to date, (the Department of Energy) has failed to seriously analyze or respond to the significant national risks and implications of LNG exports. DOE has undertaken no environmental analysis of the major increases in natural gas production and shifts in use that would result from export.”

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Environmentalists did not aggressively fight the Energy Department’s decision to allow Cheniere’s natural gas exports, though they did mount a challenge before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which approved the construction of liquefaction and export equipment at Cheniere’s Sabine Pass terminal in southwest Louisiana. Analysts now widely expect similar environmental challenges in front of FERC for every other bid to build a natural gas export facility.

Supporters of expanding natural gas exports say selling the fossil fuel overseas could give the United States a new geopolitical advantage — allowing the U.S. to bolster Japan and other allies hunting for new power sources while blunting the political influence of Russia. And while they acknowledge expanded exports could cause a slight increase in domestic prices, they say that is necessary to sustain the domestic drilling boom that has produced a natural gas glut.

Energy companies are using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — a process whereby water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground — to unlock natural gas and oil trapped in the pores of dense rock formations.

Critics agree that domestic natural gas producers will benefit from exports — but they say the cost will be borne by manufacturers and chemical makers that now enjoy a competitive pricing advantage for energy and natural gas feedstocks against foreign rivals. And they say LNG exports actually could help the environment, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Asia, as natural gas displaces coal as a major source of electricity.