Joe Biden’s administration has hit the brakes on the US’s surging exports of gas, effectively pausing a string of planned projects that have been decried by environmentalists as carbon “mega bombs” that risk pushing the world further towards climate breakdown.
On Friday, the White House announced that it was pausing all pending export permits for liquified natural gas (LNG) until the Department of Energy could come up with an updated criteria for approvals that consider the impact of climate change.
The pause, which will likely last beyond November’s presidential election, could imperil the future of more than a dozen gas export terminals that have been planned for the Gulf of Mexico coast. According to one analysis, if all proposed LNG projects go ahead and ship gas overseas, it will result in 3.2bn tons of greenhouse gases—equivalent to the entire emissions of the European Union.
A vigorous campaign by climate activists and local residents has pressed Biden to curb the rapid growth of LNG exports, pointing to its contribution to global heating and the direct pollution suffered by surrounding communities.
The US president said the pause will allow his administration to “take a hard look at the impacts of LNG exports on energy costs, America’s energy security, and our environment”.
“This pause on new LNG approvals sees the climate crisis for what it is – the existential threat of our time,” Biden said, adding that Republicans who support ever-expanding fossil fuel infrastructure “wilfully deny the urgency of the climate crisis”.
The halt on permits isn’t absolute—the White House said exceptions would be made for “unanticipated and immediate national security emergencies” and that its allies in Europe will continue to receive the gas they need to help reduce dependence upon Russia, following its invasion of Ukraine.
But activists hailed the decision as a landmark victory that showed the climate crisis will no longer be ignored in previously routine decisions to allow oil and gas projects to proceed. “This announcement from the Biden administration is truly monumental for our communities,” said Roishetta Ozane, an activist in Louisiana, where much of the LNG buildout is happening.
“It is a powerful statement that we can no longer allow these industries to continue operating without considering the health and safety of the people living in these areas.”
Others vowed to continue pushing the Biden administration to go further. “This is a bold and important step from President Biden, but the fight is just beginning,” said Lukas Ross, climate and energy deputy director at Friends of the Earth. “The climate movement is in this fight for the long haul until the LNG boom is stopped dead in its tracks.”
The US started exporting gas only in 2016 but is now the largest such exporter in the world, with a boom of new export terminals and pipelines sprouting up on the Gulf of Mexico coast. A planned facility in Louisiana, called Calcasieu Pass 2 (or CP2), would be one of the largest in the world, shipping 24m tons of gas a year once built.
Supporters of the industry—including Donald Trump, who has vowed to “drill, baby drill” if elected again as president—contend the exports aid countries in Europe, create jobs and help displace coal, a dirtier fuel, as an energy source overseas. A coalition of oil and gas industry groups has written to the Biden administration to complain a pause would “only bolster Russian influence” and risk American jobs.
However, various analyses have shown much of the gas is not bound for European allies and that the surging exports have pushed up domestic gas prices for Americans. By some measure LNG can be seen as an even bigger carbon polluter than coal, a recent scientific paper argued, when leaking emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from the drilling, transport and shipping of the commodity are taken into account.
Scientists warn that the simple arithmetic of emissions and the climate crisis means there are severe dangers associated with a new American boom in gas exports.
Last year was the hottest ever recorded globally, part of a trend of rising temperatures that could soon surpass the internationally-agreed limit of 1.5C warmer than pre-industrial times, unleashing ever-worsening heatwaves, floods, drought and other disasters.
“We are already very close to the 1.5C climate change limit, so we can only emit more CO2 if at the same time the fossil methane emissions are reduced drastically,” said Stefan Rahmstorf, a climate scientist at the University of Potsdam.
“Expanding LNG production would do just the opposite.”