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Sen. Merkley condemns Biden admin for rubber-stamping LNG buildout

The Democratic lawmaker spoke with Canary Media in a lively Q&A about how America’s surging exports of liquefied natural gas undermine U.S. climate leadership.
By Maria Gallucci

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A man with a light skin tone and gray hair wearing a business suit speaks and gesticulates. A placard reads "Sen. Merkley."
U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images)

America’s soaring exports of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, threaten to destroy” the Biden administration’s clean energy goals and undermine U.S. leadership on climate change — yet the nation’s top officials are standing idly by, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) told Canary Media this week.

In a spirited interview (see video below), Merkley voiced his frustration with President Joe Biden and federal regulators for failing to stem the buildout of fossil-gas infrastructure across the country, including the massive expansion of LNG export terminals along the Gulf Coast. The United States became the world’s top LNG-exporting country in the first half of 2023, and exports are on track to keep growing.

Merkley has spent much of this year sounding the alarm in Washington, D.C. on the climate hazards posed by LNG, joining with environmental activists and sending letters to federal authorities that review or regulate fossil-fuel infrastructure and exports. During the half-hour conversation, he pointed to mounting evidence that LNG may be as bad as — or worse than — coal for the climate, owing to leaks of planet-warming methane throughout the supply chain.

If we’re going to deal with the climate honestly,” Merkley said, then we need to pay a lot of attention to LNG exports because they are increasing the problem of climate chaos rather than reducing it.”

With eight existing terminals, U.S. LNG exports have doubled over the last four years. Another 24 terminals and expansions have been proposed or approved, putting the country on track to again double its LNG export capacity by 2027. Each project received the green light from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which has the exclusive authority to approve or deny applications for LNG export terminals.

Merkley accused FERC of rubber-stamping” every application that has crossed its desk, and of not adequately considering whether a proposed project is truly within the public interest, as it is supposed to do.

It gets an F’ for actually doing the job it’s assigned to do under the law,” he said of the agency.

FERC is expected to issue a final decision sometime soon on the Calcasieu Pass 2 project in Louisiana, which is one of the largest U.S. LNG export facilities ever proposed. However, the Department of Energy ultimately has the last word on whether CP2 goes forward. The $10 billion project needs the department’s permission to export LNG to Europe, most of Asia and dozens of other countries that haven’t entered into free-trade agreements with the United States.

On November 14, Merkley and over 60 congressional colleagues sent a letter to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm urging the department to fully consider how granting these LNG export licenses would affect the climate, environmental justice and domestic energy prices. To date, the Department of Energy has never denied an export permit to an LNG facility that FERC has approved.

The Biden administration could say no’ to [CP2] by not granting that waiver…and reorder how we think about fossil gas exports,” Merkley said.

Such a move would mark a significant departure from what Merkley deemed to be the president’s all-of-the-above” energy strategy, one that includes advocating for a massive expansion of the trans-shipment of fossil gas.” For all its efforts to deploy clean energy, the administration has done little to halt the flow of fossil fuels from America’s wells, pipelines and export terminals, the senator said.

In one example, Merkley cited the Biden administration’s approval in April of a controversial project on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. The project includes a liquefaction facility, which turns fossil gas into super-chilled fuel, as well as an 807-mile pipeline to move gas in northern Alaska across the state.

In its final environmental review, the Department of Energy said it weighed the acknowledged but highly uncertain climate impacts against the economic and international security benefits of Alaska LNG’s approved exports.” The agency cited the importance of both diverse sources of natural gas supply and increased volumes of LNG for the global LNG market in improving energy security for many U.S. allies and trading partners.”

Many of those trading partners are in Europe. Since Russia first invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Europe has sharply reduced its reliance on Russia’s gas pipelines and rapidly increased its use of American-made LNG. Last year, the region accounted for nearly two-thirds of total U.S. LNG exports. Both federal officials and fossil-fuel executives often cite European demand as a reason to expand America’s LNG export capacity beyond its currently booming levels.

According to Merkley, the United States can already meet that need with its existing LNG infrastructure. When asked if Europe will continue to rely on U.S. LNG supplies as it does today, he said, The answer is no.”

Europe is trying to dramatically reduce its reliance on fossil gas, because they know — as we know, when we’re honest about it — that we can’t possibly reduce the impact on climate if we’re continuing to use fossil fuels, so we have to phase them out,” Merkley said. And that means heat pumps, and using electricity to heat buildings, and producing electricity with renewable energy. That is the path to save the planet.”

With world leaders gathering in Dubai this week for the annual U.N. climate summit, the Oregon lawmaker stressed that America’s LNG export boom threatens to weaken the nation’s credibility on climate action. On November 29, Merkley sent another letter — this one to John Kerry, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate — urging the U.S. to strengthen its position by halting the buildout of LNG export infrastructure.

This completely undermines U.S. leadership on the global challenge of climate, if we’re greenlighting fossil-fuel project after fossil-fuel project,” Merkley said during the interview. Certainly the rest of the world does not see the power of our example when it comes to tackling the climate challenge.”

Watch video of the full interview:

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