Ten days ago, Joe Biden did something remarkable and almost unprecedented – he actually said no to big oil.
His administration has halted the granting of new permits to build liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals, something Washington has been handing out like Halloween M&Ms for nearly a decade. That’s a temporary “no” — Energy Department experts will spend the coming months hammering out a new licensing formula that takes into account the latest science and economics — but you can tell how big a deal it is by the swirling fury coming from the oil industry and its masses of politicians.
And you can say something else: how hardened their arguments have become over time. Biden has called their bluff and it’s fun to watch.
To give you a show, politicians committed to the industry are taking advantage of the natural gas hearings in Congress this week and next. Joe Manchin — who has received more lobbying money from big oil companies than anyone else in Congress and is the founder of a coal brokerage — will convene a Senate hearing on Thursday, but on Tuesday the House kicked off the action with a hearing before a House committee subcommittee for energy and trade.
One “expert” called by the commission, Toby Rice, owns a company that produces more natural gas than any other in the country. And he immediately used a skill that his ilk use over and over again. I’ll try to slow it down enough so you can see the hand dividing from the bottom of the circle.
Rice said the fracking revolution “has fueled our economy and kept us from being dependent on foreign sources of natural gas — while driving the more than 60 percent reduction in emissions the United States has seen since the turn of the century by displacing coal. burning of electricity’.
The key word here is “emissions,” by which Rice means carbon dioxide. And in fact, fracked gas, when burned in a power plant, produces fewer emissions than coal. But there is another important greenhouse gas – methane – and this is essentially what “natural gas” consists of. When leaking from a well or pipeline, it is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, molecule for 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 probably hasn’t decreased at all over the past two decades. Far from being a boon, natural gas has been a trap into which the industry now wants to trap the rest of the world.
What’s more—as new research showed this fall—when you put fracked gas on a boat and send it on a long ocean cruise, it leaks out so far that worse like coal. If the White House continued to issue all the permits the industry wanted, over a decade, U.S. natural gas would produce more greenhouse gas emissions than everything that happens on the continent of Europe. This is the largest fossil fuel expansion project on Earth.
That’s half the problem with Rice’s argument. The other half is that Rice’s gas mostly undercuts coal. We now live on a planet where the cheapest way to generate energy is to point a glass panel at the sun; there is no reason not to switch from coal straight to renewable energy, without stopping at gas in between. The idea that it’s a “bridging fuel” is a decade out of date, but the argument is that big oil wants to extend four or five decades into the future, which is how long this new infrastructure is supposed to last.
If Rice’s arguments were misleading, another industry witness was simply sad. Eric Cormier represented the Southwest Louisiana Chamber, where most of this infrastructure is located. His neighbors—environmental justice crusaders like Roishetta Ozane and James Hiatt—led that fight, warning of the damage these devices were doing to air and water. Cormier, however, said the LNG development is necessary because the region was hit so hard by hurricanes Laura and Delta, which caused $17 billion in damage, damaged 44,000 homes and reduced the population by about 7%.
He’s not wrong about the damage—Lake Charles, the big city in the region, is undoubtedly the blue tarp capital of the planet. But consider his argument for a moment: the climate crisis is causing such severe loss along the Louisiana coast that … we must make the climate crisis worse to pay for all the damage.
What? If any place on Earth felt the urgent need to ditch fossil fuels, it would be Louisiana’s disappearing coast. But if you’re a Chamber SWLA, short-term profit is the only metric you understand.
This brand of greenwashing has of course been going on for years. But big oil companies are finding it increasingly difficult to make their case, especially after a new economic survey released last week found that continuing to build infrastructure to export LNG would raise energy costs for Americans by 9 to 14%. And opinion polls show fairly convincingly that Americans don’t want to break their country to send cheap gas to China.
That won’t stop the industry from screaming. At this point, having been bypassed by new renewable energy technology, their only real hope is political play. But enlightened leaders resist them much more easily. In December, in Dubai, the world signed a commitment to “transition away” from fossil fuels. Last month in Washington, Joe Biden began to show that he meant business.
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