Biden’s plan to help Europe with LNG poses risk to US climate goals

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WASHINGTON — U.S. President Joe Biden’s plan to expand liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments to Europe to reduce the region’s dependence on Russian fuel risks undermining his administration’s climate goals by encouraging more gas production and increasing emissions, according to climate experts.

The question reflects the delicate balance the White House must strike between global energy security concerns and longer-term aspirations to usher in a broad transition away from fossil fuels to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

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“What we’re doing is supplanting Russian gas,” US climate change envoy John Kerry told Reuters in an interview. “Will there be any leaks about it? Yes, of course,” he said, calling it an “inconvenience.”

Biden promised last month to increase LNG shipments to the European Union to 50 billion cubic meters per year by 2030, more than double the amount sent from the United States in 2021. Russia is supplying around 40% of the EU’s gas needs, and the bloc fears that Moscow is using this as political leverage.

Biden’s decisions are a signal of growth in an American industry that has already become one of the world’s leading exporters of supercooled fuel thanks to advanced drilling techniques and prolific natural gas fields in states like Texas and Pennsylvania.

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Although gas burns cleaner than oil or coal, it remains a climate threat due to its tendency to leak from wells, pipelines and other infrastructure as methane. Methane is much more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

Exporting LNG produces more methane than consuming gas domestically because it requires a longer and more complex supply chain with more opportunities for leakage. It also leads to more carbon emissions from liquefaction, transport and regasification.

“Once you start traveling the world in tankers, it’s just another operation. It’s just more period of emissions,” said Debbie Gordon, senior director of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s climate program. “It’s the distance and a lot of different transfers.”

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She said US exports of liquefied natural gas to Europe could have less climate impact than Russian gas because Russia’s pipeline network is particularly permeable.

But the resulting additional US methane emissions could still be a nuisance to its climate goals.

GENERAL OBJECTIVES

Last year, the United States and the European Union pledged to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030 and were joined in this effort by more than 100 other countries. Biden’s broader climate goals include decarbonizing the US economy by 2050.

The LNG export terminals currently in service are designed to remain operational well beyond these dates.

The White House says it can address short-term energy security issues while reducing emissions. “It does not conflict with our climate goals,” said Saloni Sharma, spokesperson for the National Security Council.

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Kerry said the United States could also make progress in cleaning up methane leaks through strong regulation and industry-led initiatives to help reduce the impact of LNG expansion.

The Biden administration plans to require oil and gas operators to detect and repair methane leaks from large wells and along pipelines, regulations climate experts say could address the biggest sources of fugitive methane but which would not address all stages of the LNG supply chain.

U.S. natural gas prices are hitting 13-year highs, in part because supplies have shrunk under the weight of increased export demand.

CURRENTLY RESEARCHING

While experts agree that the expansion of LNG-related risks significantly increases emissions, quantifying the risk is complex because research is incomplete.

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According to Riley Duren, chief executive of Carbon Mapper, a nonprofit that studies methane emissions, recent aerial surveys of LNG export terminals in Texas and Louisiana did not show major methane releases.

“Most methane leaks occur upstream of export terminals,” Duren said.

Duren, however, said LNG facilities are energy-intensive and release a significant amount of carbon dioxide.

He added that Carbon Mapper overflights had also found at least one example of a large methane plume from an LNG carrier, the result of a so-called boil where the frigid liquid fuel heats up in its gaseous state.

He said it was unclear how often this happens due to the difficulty of tracking ships.

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Very little data is available on emissions from regasification and local distribution in buyer countries.

Leading U.S. LNG exporter Cheniere Energy said it was looking to measure its own climate impact to help the company improve operations.

“We are working to get a more accurate understanding of the (greenhouse gas) footprint of our LNG from wellhead to end use,” said Eben Burnham Snyder, spokesman for the society.

MiQ, a nonprofit foundation that certifies low-carbon gas, said it hopes to certify some US LNG shipments to Europe in the coming months after analyzing supply chain emissions. (Reporting by Valerie Volcovici and Nichola Groom; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

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Mary I. Bruner