The Flawed Numbers Behind Biden’s Natural Gas Export ‘Pause’

The Biden administration’s decision to “pause” the approval of new natural gas export facilities has been cheered by environmental activists as an important step in the fight against climate change. It remains unclear, however, whether the policy will actually reduce global carbon emissions—even though that seems like something you’d want to know for sure before moving ahead with a major change in federal energy policy. In the official announcement on January 26, the White House framed the decision to pause approvals for new liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities as a way to confront climate change, which it calls the “existential threat of our time.” More technically, the pause will allow the Department of Energy to update its rules for permitting future LNG export facilities. But the pause is a limited one. It will only affect exports of LNG to countries with which the U.S. does not have a free trade agreement, and it does not prevent exports from the eight LNG export facilities already operating—though it will slow construction on several other export facilities, including one in Louisiana that would be America’s largest when finished. Even with the “pause” in place, the White House says America’s LNG exports are expected to double by the end of the decade, thanks to America’s booming natural gas industry and the energy needs of a world that’s getting wealthier. While it is all a bit complicated, what the Biden administration announced last week amounts to an attempt to slow the growth of America’s natural gas exports—underpinned by the rationale that the slowdown will reduce global carbon emissions. That’s a rationale based on some dubious assumptions. The climate activists who pushed the White House to consider the “pause” on new LNG export facilities point to an analysis released in November by former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) policy advisor Jeremy Symons. Among other things, that report found that planned expansions of LNG exports in the U.S. would cause an increase in carbon emissions equal to the current level of emissions from the entire European Union. That report, as the environmental policy newsletter Heatmap notes, was not subject to peer-review and was based on another set of data, from a researcher at Cornell University, that has also not cleared the usual process for confirming academic research. Even if Symons’ report is right—indeed, an increase in natural gas exports seems likely to result in more global use of natural gas, even if he’s wrong about the scale of the increase—there’s a huge blind spot in that analysis. On his Slow Boring Substack, liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias points out that Symons “doesn’t even purport to estimate the net impact on emissions.” In other words: How much would the increase in global natural gas consumption offset emissions from dirtier forms of fuel like coal and oil? That’s the key question to ask. A significant reason why the United States has seen an overall decrease in carbon emissions in recent years is due to natural gas supplanting coal as the country’s top energy source. The Biden administration is well aware of how exporting more natural gas could facilitate a similar transition in other parts of the world. When the Department of Energy signed off on a new LNG export facility in Corpus Christie, Texas, in March 2022, it concluded that “to the extent U.S. LNG exports are preferred over coal in LNG-importing nations, U.S. LNG exports are likely to reduce global [greenhouse gas] emissions on per unit of energy consumed basis for power production.” For that matter, it’s also unclear whether pausing the expansion of U.S. exports of LNG will do much of anything to curb the global consumption of natural gas. Isn’t it more likely that LNG-importing countries will simply shift their supply chains towards other producers of natural gas, like Russia? It’s telling that the White House and Department of Energy have not even offered answers to those two huge questions about the potential consequences of this decision. If the entire policy is predicated on the importance of slowing global emissions, it’s only fair to expect the federal government to show its work and prove that reducing the growth of American LNG exports actually will reduce global emissions. Without that, this looks like a politically motivated maneuver aimed at garnering election-year praise from environmental activists on the left—and, let’s be honest, that’s probably exactly what it is.