February 28, 2024


Ten days ago Joe Biden did something remarkable, and almost without precedent – he actually said no to big oil.

His administration halted the granting of new permits for building liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals, something Washington had been handing out like M&Ms on Halloween for nearly a decade. It’s a provisional “no” – Department of Energy experts will spend the coming months figuring out a new formula for granting the licenses that takes the latest science and economics into account – but you can tell what a big deal it is because of the howls of rage coming from the petroleum industry and its gaggle of politicians.

And you can tell something else too: just how threadbare their arguments have become over time. Biden has called their bluff, and it’s beautiful to watch.

To give you an idea, politicians beholden to the industry are using this week and next to hold hearings about natural gas in Congress. Joe Manchin – who has received more lobbying money from big oil than anyone else in Congress, and is the founder of a coal brokerage business – is convening a session in the Senate on Thursday, but on Tuesday the House began the action with a hearing before a subcommittee of the House committee on energy and commerce.

One “expert” summoned by the panel, Toby Rice, owns the company that produces more natural gas than any other in the country. And he immediately deployed the sleight of hand that his ilk have used over and over again. I’ll try and slow it down enough that you can see the hand dealing from the bottom of the deck.

The fracking revolution, Rice said, “has powered our economy and prevented us from being reliant on foreign sources of natural gas – all the while driving over 60% of the emissions reduction the United States experienced since the turn of the century by displacing coal-fired power generation”.

The key word here is “emissions”, by which Rice means carbon dioxide. And indeed fracked gas, when burned in a power plant, produces fewer emissions than coal. But there’s another major greenhouse gas – methane – and that’s basically what “natural gas” consists of. When it leaks from a well or a pipeline, it’s 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, molecule per molecule, at trapping heat.

And so much is leaking that – when you combine those emissions with the carbon that still comes from burning gas – America’s total contribution to global warming has probably not gone down at all over the last two decades. Far from being a boon, natural gas has been a trap, one that the industry now wants to catch the rest of the globe in.

What’s more – as new research this fall showed – when you put fracked gas on a boat and send it on a long ocean cruise, so much leaks out that it’s far worse than coal. If the White House had kept granting all the permits that industry wanted, within a decade US natural gas would be producing more greenhouse gas emissions than everything that happens on the continent of Europe. It’s the biggest fossil fuel expansion project on Earth.

That’s half the problem with Rice’s argument. The other half is, it’s not coal that Rice’s gas mostly undercuts. We now live on a planet where the cheapest way to produce power is to point a sheet of glass at the sun; there’s no reason not to go straight from coal to renewable energy, with no intermediate stop at gas. The idea that it’s a “bridge fuel” is a decade out of date, but it’s an argument that big oil wants to extend four or five decades into the future, because that’s how long this new infrastructure is supposed to last.

If Rice’s arguments were deceptive, the other industry witness was simply sad. Eric Cormier represented the Chamber Southwest Louisiana, where most of this infrastructure is located. It’s his neighbors – environmental justice crusaders like Roishetta Ozane and James Hiatt – who have led this fight, pointing out the damage that these installations are doing to the air and water. Cormier, though, said LNG development was necessary because the region had taken such an economic hit from Hurricanes Laura and Delta, which had caused $17bn in damages, damaged 44,000 homes, and dropped the population by about 7%.

He’s not wrong about the damage – Lake Charles, the big city in the region, is arguably the blue tarp capital of the planet. But think about his argument for even a second: the climate crisis is causing such grievous loss along the coast of Louisiana that … we need to make the climate crisis worse to pay for all the damage.

What? If any place on Earth should viscerally feel the urgent need to get off fossil fuels, the disappearing Louisiana coast would be it. But if you’re the Chamber SWLA, short-term profit is the only metric you understand.

This brand of greenwashing has been going on for years, of course. But big oil is having an ever-harder time making their argument, especially after a new economic survey published last week showed that continuing to build out the LNG export infrastructure would raise energy costs for Americans by 9 to 14%. And polling shows pretty conclusively that Americans don’t want to frack their country to send cheap gas to China.

That won’t stop the industry from shouting. At this point, bypassed by new renewable technology, their only real hope is political gamesmanship. But it’s getting far easier for enlightened leaders to stand up to them. In December, in Dubai, the world signed a pledge to “transition away” from fossil fuels. Last month, in Washington, Joe Biden started to show that he meant it.



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