Environmentalists challenge natural gas export plans

Environmentalists are challenging Freeport LNG’s bid to export natural gas from a facility in Texas — the latest attempt to undercut a push by more than a half dozen companies to send the fossil fuel overseas.

The move by the Sierra Club came in the form of a formal protest lodged with the Energy Department, which is considering a request by Freeport LNG and other firms for licenses to export liquefied natural gas.

Texas-based companies, such as Cheniere Energy and Freeport LNG, are eager to take advantage of the glut of natural gas produced in the U.S., using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques that allow the fossil fuel to be freed from dense shale rock formations.

But the Sierra Club wants the federal government to put the brakes on those plans, amid concerns about air pollution and potential water contamination from hydraulic fracturing. The group has challenged other LNG export plans and asked top Obama administration officials to require a broader review of the environmental consequences of the likely surge in natural gas drilling that would result from selling the fuel overseas.

“Exporting LNG requires increased natural gas production and more unsafe fracking, making a dirty fuel more dangerous and putting more American families in at risk,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune in a statement.

In its filing Friday, the Sierra Club asks the government to conduct a full environmental impact statement and broadly study the consequences of allowing Freeport LNG to develop an export facility 70 miles south of Houston. The group’s protest hinges on air and water pollution in Texas from a boost in natural gas exploration in the Barnett Shale and other regions.

“Fracking for natural gas significantly impacts water and air quality in Texas,” said Dewayne Quertermous, a Sierra Club Lonestar Chapter member, in a statement. “An export facility would increase these impacts by increasing production in the shale plays.”

Freeport LNG and ConocoPhillips are aiming to build the export facility, with a potential capacity of 4.4 million tons per year.

Houston-based Cheniere Energy Partners, meanwhile, is even further ahead in its plans to convert an existing LNG receiving terminal in Louisiana so that it can also liquefy and export gas from the site. The company’s plan would allow the export of up to 3.5 million tons per year from the Sabine Pass terminal in Lake Charles, La., beginning in early 2015.

That Sabine Pass terminal went online in 2009, just as U.S. natural gas production surged and killed the need for LNG imports.

Cheniere won the Energy Department’s approval to export up to 803 Bcf per year — or about 16 million metric tons — of liquefied natural gas last May. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could decide to approve Cheneire’s $10 billion Sabine Pass plant plans during a meeting this Thursday.

If approved, Cheniere’s Sabine Pass liquefaction facility could be the first natural gas exporting facility in the lower 48 states; one is located in Alaska near the Cook Inlet.

Cheniere has separate plans to export LNG from a facility in Corpus Christi. And at least six other proposed LNG export facilities are awaiting federal regulators’ approval.

The plans are opposed not just by environmentalists, such as the Sierra Club, but also some chemical manufacturers that use natural gas as a building block to create other products and worry about a resulting price climb. Congressional Democrats have proposed legislation that would ban new LNG exports.

By cooling natural gas to 256 degrees below zero, companies can turn it into a liquid, making it easy to transport in ocean tankers to countries around the globe. Before it can be used again, the LNG must be converted back into its gas form. Cheniere’s Sabine Pass terminal is outfitted with regassification and storage equipment now.