Climate battle

Bill McKibben
Thursday, Sep 28, 2023

The great privilege of being a journalist is that you get to ask questions, and people generally answer them, so you find stuff out. And sometimes that stuff is shocking.

I’ve spent the last few weeks working on a story for the New Yorker about the build-out of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminals. With some help from a remarkable editor and an unshakable fact-checker, it came out a few days ago, and at the risk of being repetitive I wanted to share some of the reporting with you, because it seems to me to point in the direction of what might be the next – and perhaps the ultimate – big battle with the fossil fuel industry. It reminds me a lot of the Keystone XL saga, but with perhaps even more at stake.

To put it simply, with the invention of fracking, America – and Canada, and Australia – ended up with huge supplies of fossil gas. It’s not really needed – we could, more cheaply and much more cleanly, power the world with sun, wind, and batteries. But if that happened, the people who own these reserves would have to forego the hundreds of billions of dollars they could get for selling that gas. That is unacceptable to them; they would far rather break the planet.

So they’re in an all-out sprint to get it to market as fast as they can, mostly by exporting it around the world. In the U.S., there are already seven giant LNG export terminals, and there are plans for at least twenty more, mostly along the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana and Texas, which are close by the giant gas fields of the Permian Basin.

If this buildout continues, and if you counted the emissions from this gas against America’s totals, it would mean that American greenhouse gas emissions would not have budged since 2005. Under the arcane rules of global carbon accounting, exported hydrocarbons don’t count against our total – they’re the problem of the country that eventually burns them (in this case mostly in Asia). But the atmosphere doesn’t care; once burned, the carbon quickly disperses around the globe, heating the entire planet.

Just a single proposed terminal that I talk about in the New Yorker piece – the so-called CP2 LNG plant proposed for Cameron Parish, Louisiana – would over its lifetime be associated with twenty times the greenhouse gas emissions of the huge Willow oil complex that Biden controversially approved earlier this year.

The industry insists that selling gas overseas helps slow climate change, because it could replace coal.

But scientists in recent years have shown that leaking methane makes fracked gas at least as bad for the climate as coal – and in any event scientists and diplomats have in recent years embraced the idea of net zero instead of slow incremental transition from one fuel to the next to the next. We’re simply out of time to use natural gas as a “bridge” to a cleaner future.

Excerpted: ‘The Fight to End LNG Expansion

Could Be the Biggest Climate Battle of Our Lives’.