Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

LNG exports are a really, really big’ climate threat, McKibben says

Canary Media talks with Bill McKibben about the Biden administration’s stance on LNG, the gas’s outsize climate impacts and the miracle of renewables.
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By Nicole Pollack

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Bill McKibben on a screen in front of a small seated crowd
Bill McKibben takes the virtual stage. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

On November 15, Canary Media contributing reporter Nicole Pollack sat down with author and activist Bill McKibben, who has been writing and organizing on climate change for decades — and who was instrumental in defeating the Keystone XL pipeline — to discuss what the country’s rapid buildout of liquefied natural gas (LNG) export infrastructure means for our clean energy future.

McKibben is working on a new campaign, this time against the Biden administration’s unbroken streak of approving proposed U.S. LNG facilities. He argues that continuing to ramp up exports of natural gas (or, as he’d prefer it be called, fossil gas) undermines the administration’s successful efforts to expand clean energy technologies and threatens to put the country’s climate goals out of reach.

You can watch the full conversation:

The abridged Q&A below has been edited for clarity.

Pollack: When did you realize that LNG was going to be such a big problem, and why did you decide to focus on this issue?

McKibben: I think this snuck up on me, as on a lot of people. I knew that we’d begun exporting gas in quantity. I even knew that the U.S. had managed over the last six or seven years to become the biggest natural-gas exporter on the planet. But I did not understand just how large the expansion plans for this industry were.

If the buildout goes all the way to where the industry wants it to — and there are plans for 20 more of these massive terminals — by the time it’s done, exported American natural gas would be responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than everything that happens on the continent of Europe. It would be as if we discovered a whole new continent full of greenhouse gases and methane and carbon, which is the last thing we need in the world at the moment.

Pollack: When I tell most of my family and friends that I write about liquefied natural gas, their eyes tend to glaze over. How do you try to engage people on the subject of LNG

McKibben: I think that you need to make people understand the scale of it.

Twenty years ago, people were like, OK, gas is not as bad as coal. When we burn it, it produces half as much carbon dioxide per Btu. So maybe this will be the bridge fuel that gets us from coal to sun and wind.’

But two things have happened since then. One, we’ve come to understand that that’s only half the story with gas. When you burn it, it produces half as much carbon. But if any amount of it escapes unburned in the process of fracking, piping and shipping it everywhere, the methane that escapes is 80 times more powerful than CO2 in trapping heat.

[Hundreds of studies] point to a massive leak issue. The newest of the studies comes from Robert Howarth at Cornell, and what he found was that when you put gas on a ship and sail it around the world, the emissions get crazy. By the time you’re done, this stuff is, at best, 24% worse than coal.

But the other thing that’s happened in the intervening years is that the context has changed completely. We’ve driven down the price of renewable energy by about 90%. We now live on a planet where the cheapest way to produce power is to point a sheet of glass at the sun or put up a turbine to capture the wind that blows across the surface.

Pollack: What is the Biden administration’s stance on LNG, from your perspective?

McKibben: On the clean-energy side of the ledger, Biden can make a legitimate claim to having done more to push good, clean renewable energy than anyone before. But on the dirty-energy side of the ledger, he hasn’t done anywhere near as well.

Approving the Willow oil complex was the most disturbing example of this. Biden should not have approved that, and doing it clearly cost him dearly amongst young, highly concerned voters.

So now one hopes he seizes the chance to recoup by taking on LNG. Just the first of these plants, the next one [up for approval], CP2 in Cameron Parish [Louisiana], will have 20 times the carbon emissions of the Willow project.

I think one reason he approved the Willow oil complex is because he was afraid of ads from Republicans saying, Here’s the price of gas at the pump — it’s because you won’t approve new drilling.’ The price of gasoline is a salient part of American political life.

But natural gas isn’t like that. If you’re exporting natural gas, what you’re doing is driving up the price of gas for Americans who still depend on it for cooking and heating, who haven’t had the chance yet to install an electric heat pump or an induction cooktop in their kitchen — all the important new technologies we now have.

So in this case, Biden, if he makes the right choice, will be able to say, I’m not only fighting climate change, I’m continuing the fight against inflation.’

Pollack: Calcasieu Pass 2, or CP2, is one of the largest LNG export facilities ever proposed for the U.S. Can you walk us through the key decision points ahead for that particular project?

McKibben: [Once Venture Global, CP2’s developer, gets a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission], they could theoretically go ahead and build the thing. But they won’t unless they get an export license from the Department of Energy. That’s because without that export license, they can only sell the gas to countries with which we have an existing free trade agreement — Canada, Mexico and a handful of others.

In order to get that license from DOE, they need a finding that it would be in the public interest” to grant them such a permit. And that’s the place where I think the Biden administration is most likely to take a leap.

At the moment, DOE relies on a set of analyses done in 2014, and then some more work done in the Trump years, when the Department of Energy was in the climate-denial business, to make this public-interest determination.

It’s clearly time, given our new understanding of methane science, of the economics of renewables and of runaway global heating on this planet, for them to redo that analysis.

Pollack: One thing we hear often from proponents of LNG to justify the buildout is that our allies in Europe will need a reliable supply of gas for a long time since pipeline imports from Russia have been cut off or significantly reduced. How do you answer that?

McKibben: One, they’ve got a reliable supply. We’re talking about CP2. It’s supposed to go right next to CP1, which is there cranking out LNG and sending it off merrily to Europe. There’s a supply of this stuff that exists.

But also, happily, Europe is busy getting off fossil fuel altogether. The war in Ukraine has spurred much quicker action in Europe around reducing their use of fossil fuel and increasing the speed with which they’re moving to renewables.

Pollack: How would the continued expansion of U.S. LNG export capacity impact the global clean energy transition?

McKibben: Jeremy Symons [an independent environmental consultant and former federal climate policy adviser] has a good paper just out that demonstrates that, in fact, in most places where this stuff is going, it’s not replacing the coal anyway. It’s undercutting the move toward renewable energy. If we’re selling cheap fracked gas around the world, that just makes it that much harder to do the necessary work of moving quickly to sun and wind.

The [U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] has told us that we have six years to cut emissions in half if we want to keep on anything like the Paris [Agreement] timetable. All our leaders, especially in places like the Department of Energy, should be busily embracing the incredibly beautiful vision of the future, and celebrating the fact that engineers over the last 10 years have really done their job.

Pollack: I’m curious about the argument that LNG displaces coal. Does that even happen? And how much control does the Biden administration have over that choice?

McKibben: They have no control. We’re just sending this stuff out there and seeing what happens.

But that’s the point that this new Jeremy Symons paper makes quite persuasively: that much more than it’s replacing coal — even if that was a useful role, which turns out not to be in this case — what it’s really doing is displacing actual clean energy.

Even if you thought LNG was a little bit better than coal, a little bit better than coal is not at all what we need. What we need is clean, and we can have clean. That’s the miracle of the moment.

Pollack: You took part in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline. Can we expect to see that sort of activism, protests and direct action against LNG decisions and construction?

McKibben: Yes.

I think that the target in this case wouldn’t be the White House. I think it would be the Department of Energy. That seems to be, at least for the moment, where the problems have been. They’re providing bad information to their client in the White House, and it’s time for them to fix that.

Now, if they fix that and tell the truth about what’s going on with LNG, and Joe Biden just goes ahead and says, Well, we don’t care, we’re going to do it anyway,’ then it’ll be time to take him on. But I don’t think that’s the case.

Pollack: Can you talk about who lives near these terminals and who would suffer most from the buildout as planned?

McKibben: The U.S. has been willing to make the Gulf Coast a kind of sacrifice zone for all kinds of stuff, mostly oil and gas development. So from Port Arthur to Lake Charles to on and on and on, there are people breathing terrible air, living surrounded by massive complexes that erode the quality of life in every way and wreck the landscape and the wild lands around them.

And these, of course, are communities of color, communities with low incomes, because that’s where we always put this. One of the groups that really takes it on the chin are fishermen, because it’s right in the fishing grounds where these huge tankers are coming in and out and where the sludge from all these things is piling up.

The people down there deserve extraordinary credit. And I think the rest of us feel a little abashed that we didn’t figure out earlier on exactly the scale of this and come to their aid.

Pollack: Let’s say, hypothetically, that LNG export facilities continue to be approved for a while, and all the ones that have been proposed are built. What would have to happen at that point for the U.S. to meet our climate goals? And how much harder would those goals be to achieve?

McKibben: I don’t think they are achievable if we keep building. I mean, they’re hard enough to achieve now.

One of the things that makes this so difficult is that emissions from the gas that gets liquefied and sent around the world don’t get counted against our scorecard under the way that the international system is set up. Only the country that actually finally burns the stuff has it counted.

So America can keep saying, Oh, we’re reducing our emissions,’ even as we push gas overseas. But of course, the atmosphere could care less where this stuff is coming from. The atmosphere just wants it to be kept in the ground.

Pollack: What about targeting LNG demand by expanding access to renewables, induction stoves and heat pumps?

McKibben: That’s the work that we’ve been trying to do in Europe and elsewhere.

Spreading these technologies — heat pumps, electric bikes, things like that — around the world is clearly rational policy, the most rational and necessary policy that we have in the whole world.

Pollack: Do you think we’re going to see any international pressure on the U.S. to reduce LNG exports?

McKibben: There’s good campaigning going on in Europe, in conjunction with some of these people down in the Gulf, to put some pressure on. And I think that the international environmental community is catching up on the scale of this too.

I don’t know how much of an issue it will be at COP28, but I imagine it’s going to be on the agenda of more and more environmentalists.

Pollack: If our viewers could take away one thing from this conversation today, what would you want them to walk away with?

McKibben: This LNG stuff is really big. Really, really big. And it’s a great opportunity to take a serious bite out of the climate problem. It doesn’t solve it. It doesn’t make it go away. But it keeps it from getting exponentially worse, and that’s a big deal.

If people realize the scale of what we’re talking about, then probably we can convince the administration to do the right thing. I think that we’re going to have to fight this out. But I hope that there’s a chance that if we do fight it out, the White House will do the right thing.

Nicole Pollack is an Ohio-based environmental journalist who writes about energy, agriculture and climate change. She covers the politics and climate consequences of the U.S. LNG buildout for Canary Media.