Environmentalists challenge Obama on natural gas exports

WASHINGTON — More than a dozen environmental groups on Tuesday called on President Barack Obama to reject his previous support for natural gas and the controversial technology used to produce the fossil fuel.

In a letter to Obama, the organizations also insisted that the administration’s handling of a proposed natural gas export facility on the Maryland coast is a test of the president’s commitment to combating climate change.

“We are disturbed by your administration’s support for hydraulic fracturing and, particularly, your plan to build liquefied natural gas export terminals along U.S. coastlines that would ship large amounts of fracked gas around the world,” said the groups. “We call on you to reverse course on this plan and commit instead to keeping most of our nation’s fossil fuel reserves in the ground.”

Environmental impact

The letter-signers, including 350.org, Environment America, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club, also insisted that “as a good-faith test case in this direction,” Obama should force the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to conduct a broad environmental impact assessment of Dominion Resources’ proposed Cove Point LNG export facility.

The Energy Department already has given the Richmond, Va.-based company conditional approval to export up to 770 million cubic feet per day of natural gas to India, Japan and other countries that don’t have free-trade agreements with the United States. But Dominion’s plans to revamp its decades-old natural gas receiving terminal so it can instead liquefy the fossil fuel and load it onto tankers bound for Japan and India are under FERC review.

The independent government commission is so far on track to require only a smaller environmental assessment of the planned $3.8 billion export project, but Chesapeake Climate Action Network President Mike Tidwell said that a more thorough impact statement is needed to “put all the facts on the table for the LNG export facility closest to the president’s house.”

This is a way he can “show a sign to the U.S. environmental community that he hears our concerns about LNG exports,” Tidwell added.

Dominion officials have argued that a broader environmental impact statement is not needed, since the initial receiving terminal was subject to such scrutiny and the planned expansion is designed to stay within the facility’s existing footprint.

Fighting gas exports

The Cove Point proposal is emerging as a major test of environmentalists’ ability to block midstream energy infrastructure projects out of concerns about the initial oil and gas production as well as the eventual burning of those fossil fuels.

The project also is a target for environmental activists who have been fighting the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Exporting American natural gas would mean more drilling, more fossil fuel production and more greenhouse gas emissions from the wellhead to the burner tip, said Michael Brune, head of the Sierra Club.

“We believe the president is sincere in his commitment to addressing climate change,” Brune said. “But at the same time it is clear that the modest progress we have made in the United States will be undermined if Cove Point and the other proposed LNG terminals are built.”

So far, federal regulators have fully approved one liquefied natural gas export facility, in Louisiana, and the Energy Department has given five broad but conditional export licenses to four other ventures, including Cove Point.

Obama’s climate change commitment

Obama has touted America’s surging natural gas production in State of the Union addresses and energy policy speeches, highlighting the economic gains from today’s drilling boom even as he stresses the need for it to be done right.

Given the economic benefits, the White House appears unlikely to change its approach to natural gas or the hydraulic fracturing process that involves pumping water, sand and chemicals underground to free trapped hydrocarbons.

The crisis in Ukraine also has served to raise the political stakes around U.S. natural gas production, as some lawmakers and energy industry leaders argue that America should swiftly approve exports of the fossil fuel in a bid to blunt Russia’s role as a leading supplier.

Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, and a leader of the movement against Keystone XL, insisted that strong opposition and environmental activism can change the political dynamic on natural gas.

“We were told when the Keystone pipeline fight first came up that there wasn’t a chance in the world” and approval was likely, McKibben told reporters on a conference call Tuesday. “Fights change political realities.”

When it comes to Obama and climate change, “we’ll find out how sincere he is,” McKibben added. “He will become far more sincere the more people turn out to cause trouble and point out what a poor idea this is.”

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