Biden paused LNG export approvals, but activists say fight is far from over

Climate activists celebrate the White House’s recent announcement that it will review LNG export approvals — while also preparing for a long battle.
By Maria Gallucci

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A large green LNG tanker at port
(MediaNews Group/Boston Herald/Getty Images)

Climate activists had planned to spend this week blocking the entrance to the U.S. Department of Energy’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. During a three-day sit-in, demonstrators were prepared to risk arrest while demanding that the Biden administration stop Calcasieu Pass 2, a massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal planned in Louisiana. Opponents say the nation’s rapid buildout of LNG infrastructure threatens the planet’s climate and the communities living near the heavily polluting facilities.

The sit-in, however, never happened.

On January 26, the Biden administration said it is temporarily pausing its decision on whether to approve permits for Calcasieu Pass 2, known as CP2, and other LNG projects until the Department of Energy can more thoroughly assess their impacts on climate change and the American public. The would-be protestors claimed the announcement as an early victory.

The best [civil-disobedience] actions are the actions you don’t have to do,” Bill McKibben, a writer and climate activist, said on a press call held later that day. Still, he added, That doesn’t mean there isn’t all kinds of appetite for doing this kind of thing when we need to going forward.”

That opportunity might come soon enough. Far from settling the issue, the White House’s pause on new LNG export approvals marks the start of what is certain to be a highly politicized and drawn-out process that’s playing out during a presidential election year.

Fossil-fuel lobbyists and pro-LNG lawmakers from both political parties have moved swiftly in recent days to challenge the Biden administration’s decision, while pushing the narrative that restricting future LNG exports in any way — even as volumes reach unprecedented heights — threatens the U.S. economy and national security. Meanwhile, dozens of Democratic members of Congress have vowed to make the pause permanent and to stop the climate chaos” that they claim LNG contributes to.

For their part, environmental groups and Gulf Coast community leaders say they’re bracing for a monthslong slog as the Department of Energy begins its review, which only affects LNG terminals that haven’t been built yet. Curbing dangerous pollution from existing facilities — many of which operate in communities of color — is another battleground unto itself.

When we walk outside our doors, and we continue to see the flares and pollution, continue to smell the smoke and rotten eggs, we know the fight is not over,” said Roishetta Ozane, founder of Vessel Project of Louisiana, an environmental justice organization in Lake Charles.

This is a long game,” she added during an event held last week in the U.S. Capitol building. We ate a piece of cake, we drank a glass of wine…but we can only celebrate momentarily.”

LNG slowdown follows rapid rise in exports 

In postponing the CP2 decision, the Biden Department of Energy (DOE) made a significant break from the Trump and Obama administrations, which approved every complete LNG export application they considered.

Since February 2016, when the lower 48 states began exporting LNG for the first time, the amount of U.S. fossil gas shipped overseas rose from virtually nothing to 88.9 million metric tons in 2023 — making America the world’s largest LNG exporter last year.

The United States has eight existing LNG export terminals. Built atop swampland and along the coast, these facilities receive gas that’s piped in from the nation’s shale formations. Through an energy-intensive process, the gas is chilled to -260 degrees Fahrenheit and liquefied. In this form, companies can load greater volumes onto ships bound for overseas markets.

When burned, fossil gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal. But gas is primarily composed of methane — a potent greenhouse gas whose near-term warming power is many times that of CO2. That methane is prone to leak along the complex supply chain, from the fracking pad all the way to the import facilities that turn LNG back into gas, further increasing LNG’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

The Biden administration’s decision doesn’t impact any active facilities. Nor will it hinder the seven new terminals already under construction, which could help to double U.S. LNG exports by the end of this decade.

Instead, the temporary pause will primarily affect six major proposed LNG export terminals that are still waiting to secure necessary approvals from either the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the DOE, or both. That includes the $10 billion CP2 project, which, if built, will be the largest LNG export terminal in the United States.

FERC, which is an independent agency within the DOE, is in charge of permitting the siting, construction, expansion and operation of fossil-fuel infrastructure within the U.S. Separately, the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management decides whether to grant LNG facilities permission to export to countries that haven’t entered into free-trade agreements with the United States. That includes Europe, most of Asia and dozens of other countries.

The DOE has never denied an export permit to an LNG facility that FERC has approved. However, if the department were to do so, that would almost certainly scare off investors and erode the financial case for any developer looking to build a multibillion-dollar complex — stopping a proposed project in its tracks.

The long bureaucratic road ahead 

Expecting FERC to approve CP2 early this year, climate activists and Democratic lawmakers began ramping up their pressure on the Department of Energy last fall. The groups cautioned the DOE against rubber-stampingCP2’s export license with minimal scrutiny and urged federal officials to revise their methods for determining whether applications are in the public interest and therefore should be greenlighted.

The White House responded to that pressure last month when it paused all pending decisions on LNG exports to countries without free-trade agreements.

Now, the DOE is tasked with updating the underlying economic and environmental analyses it uses when assessing projects — which today draw on two outdated studies that experts say don’t fully account for how new export licenses would affect domestic energy prices, the climate or environmental justice. The pause will provide the time to integrate these critical considerations,” according to the White House.

A group of protestors gather under an overpass and hold a sign that says Don't Sacrifice the Gulf for LNG
Frontline fishers and environmental activists protest the buildout of liquefied natural gas export infrastructure in Louisiana. (Louisiana Bucket Brigade)

Moneen Nasmith, a senior attorney for national climate issues at Earthjustice, said the decision was long overdue but very welcome.” Still, many details around the process haven’t yet materialized, including how long the pause will last, what the new process entails and how people will be able to participate.

In terms of what’s next, step No. 1 is to get some more clarity from DOE on what exactly it is planning,” she told Canary Media.

It also remains unclear whether the federal agency will solicit public comments while updating its analyses or if it will work behind closed doors and seek comments after the fact. Nasmith said that, while letter-writing and petitioning elected officials are other key ways to engage, having a formal comment period provides the most obvious opportunity for concerned consumers, Gulf Coast residents and everyone else to have their voices heard.

Those of you who care about this issue, as soon as the announcement happens, need to participate robustly in the public-comment process,” Gillian Giannetti, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said on a press call.

As the DOE’s review process kicks off, climate advocates say they’re also pursuing other paths to slow or halt the LNG export boom — though all of them are likely to face fierce opposition or bureaucratic pitfalls.

At last week’s event, Roishetta Ozane, the Louisiana activist, called on lawmakers to pass the 2023 Fossil Free Finance Act, which would direct the Federal Reserve to require major banks to stop financing projects and activities linked to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Banks have to get on board,” she said.

Also speaking at the U.S. Capitol, Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), who co-sponsored the finance bill, urged support for another one of his proposals: the Block All New Fossil Fuel Exports Act. The bill would amend the Energy Policy and Conservation Act to ban the export of U.S. crude oil and fossil gas abroad — reversing a 2015 decision by President Obama to lift a 40-year-old restriction on U.S. oil exports.

Nasmith stressed that the Biden administration has avenues beyond the DOE to strengthen oversight of not only future LNG export activity but also operations at existing plants.

For example, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation, is slated to issue rules this year that could tighten safety requirements and improve the detection and repair of methane leaks from gas pipeline infrastructure and LNG facilities. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could also reexamine how it reviews and approves permits for air-quality impacts from existing terminals.

There are other things [this administration] could be doing that should be playing a much more important role in curbing the effects this industry is having right now on people on the ground,” Nasmith said.

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.