The liquefied-natural-gas buildout—and fossil-fuel exports—challenge progress on global warming.
Earlier this year, the Biden Administration approved the Willow Project, a huge oil-drilling complex to be built in Alaska on thawing permafrost that may need to be mechanically refrozen before it can be drilled. Not surprisingly, Willow drew opposition—more than five million people, many of them young, signed petitions against the plan, and a million sent letters to the White House—which, the Times noted last month, could become “a wild card factor in next year’s presidential race.”
But the Willow field is not the only major fossil-fuel project in the works. Soon, you may also be hearing a good deal about C.P.2, or Calcasieu Pass 2, an enormous liquefied-natural-gas export terminal that’s been proposed for the Louisiana coast, and which the Biden Administration is likely to approve or reject this fall. The project, the largest of at least twenty L.N.G. terminals proposed by a handful of companies to take gas mostly from the Southwest’s Permian Basin to overseas customers, is a poster child for late-stage petrocapitalism: it would help lock in the planet’s reliance on fossil fuels long past what scientists have identified as the breaking point for the climate system. And it will bring to the fore one of the most crucial—and least-discussed—parts of the climate fight: America’s rapidly increasing exports of oil and gas to the rest of the world. To give an idea of how big the battle at C.P.2 could turn out to be: according to the veteran energy analyst Jeremy Symons, the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with it would be twenty times larger than those from the oil drilling at Willow.
The Calcasieu Ship Channel is a sixty-eight-mile-long waterway, dating to the eighteen-seventies, which the Army Corps of Engineers subsequently dredged to provide deep-water access from the Gulf of Mexico thirty miles north, to the city of Lake Charles—now the twelfth-largest port in the United States. The channel is strategically situated not just because ships can easily reach it from the Gulf of Mexico but because pipelines can easily reach it from the Permian Basin. Venture Global, a Virginia-based company bidding to become the country’s leading natural-gas exporter, has already built one big L.N.G. terminal, Calcasieu Pass 1, known as C.P.1, on the channel, in Cameron Parish, and is building another in Plaquemines Parish, twenty miles south of New Orleans, where the Gulf meets the Mississippi. Now Venture Global has applied for permits to build C.P.2, a larger facility adjacent to C.P.1, which would allow the export of twenty million metric tons of L.N.G. annually. Seven terminals are already up and running in that stretch of the Louisiana coast and in neighboring parts of Texas, such as Port Arthur.
It’s the greatest L.N.G. boom in history, a feat that is all the more remarkable given that U.S. oil-and-gas exports were essentially nil before 2016, when, just days after the Paris climate negotiations ended, congressional Democrats agreed to end the forty-year ban on selling American oil abroad in exchange for extending solar- and wind-energy-industry tax credits in an omnibus spending bill. The first large-scale L.N.G. exports began in 2016; Vladimir Putin provided a rationale for backing increased exports when he launched his attack on Ukraine in 2022 and turned down the gas tap for Europe. The U.S. and others met the challenge, exporting fifty-six billion cubic metres to the European Union last year; the Biden Administration has promised another fifty billion this winter. Projects like C.P.2, though, won’t be done for at least three years, by which time the geopolitical reasoning will presumably have faded, but the infrastructure will linger for decades. The U.S. has now surpassed Russia and Qatar to become the single largest exporter of L.N.G. in the world.
And that’s just the beginning. A new report published last week (I helped present the data at a press conference) showed that more than a third of increases in oil and gas production between now and 2035 is slated to come from the U.S. alone—the authors, who work for the research and advocacy group Oil Change International, based in Washington, D.C., said that this will make the United States the “Planet Wrecker in Chief.” If that sounds odd, given the level of climate action under way since the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, in the summer of 2022, you need to consider the artificial distinction that the world draws between domestic and foreign emissions. It’s a kind of math problem, though not a very hard one.
President Biden has said that he will cut U.S. emissions in half from 2005 levels by 2030; the huge investments in electric vehicles, wind turbines, and the like under the I.R.A. should accomplish a significant fraction of that task. But, at the same time, the Administration has overseen the continued ramp-up of fossil-fuel exports. (Venture Global alone is planning to produce a hundred million metric tons of L.N.G. a year.) The emissions from all that gas don’t officially “count” against the U.S.’s total, because it will be burned elsewhere, and under rules set by the United Nations the country of combustion, not production, is on the hook for it. But the atmosphere doesn’t care where fossil fuel is burned; the resulting carbon dioxide mixes quickly into the atmosphere and raises temperatures everywhere. And, if those emissions are added “into our footprint,” the analyst Jeremy Symons told me recently, “our total emissions in 2030 will be roughly the same as in 2005.” The rules constitute, he said, “the greatest shell game in the history of the world. We’re so focussed on domestic emissions that we’ve missed entirely what’s going on with exports.”
Venture Global declined to comment for this piece, but it has said that, in fact, it is cleaning up the world’s energy system, because “with lower cost L.N.G., more global, growing economies will realize the environmental benefits of clean-burning natural gas.” That is, if developing economies don’t get L.N.G., they might burn coal instead. So far, the Biden Administration has gone along with this reasoning. The Department of Energy has to grant an export license before gas from the proposed C.P.2 terminal can be marketed beyond the small list of countries with which the United States has a free-trade agreement. But, to weigh such a decision, the department is still using a Trump-era analysis that simply compares burning natural gas with, say, burning coal, and concludes that the gas will have less impact on the climate. This may or may not be true—D.O.E. officials have avoided a realistic analysis of how much heat-trapping methane is leaked during the fracking process. But, either way, it’s beside the point, because the world, in theory, is no longer aiming for incremental shifts such as moving from coal to gas.
As the climate crisis has deepened, first scientists and then diplomats have understood that the necessary target is “net zero,” which is why, in 2021, the International Energy Agency declared that, beginning that year, all new investment in fossil-fuel infrastructure should cease. “The pathway to net zero is narrow but still achievable,” the I.E.A.’s Fatih Birol explained. “If we want to reach net zero by 2050 we do not need any more investments in new oil, gas and coal projects.” That, clearly, means that we shouldn’t build any new L.N.G. export terminals and that, instead of exporting natural gas, we should be exporting—and helping to pay for—solar farms and wind turbines that can help get us somewhere nearer net zero. As Scientific American reported, the Gulf Coast state of Texas was able to keep its power grid running through this summer’s heat wave precisely because it had built so much solar power and battery capacity.
The United States isn’t the only nation whose fossil-fuel industry is banking on L.N.G. The Oil Change International report put Canada second on its planet-wreckers list, and the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced recently that it will seek credits toward that country’s emissions targets because “supplying Canadian clean energy such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) that allows other countries to reduce emissions in diesel and coal.” But the argument makes no more sense for Canada than for Cameron Parish; you can’t reduce global warming just by letting someone else burn your fossil fuel. As Symons said, “It’s like you have two kids sharing a room, and you tell them to clean it up. And one just pushes their mess to the other side and you’re, like, ‘Good job.’ ”
Venture Global also says that it will help in the climate fight by deploying “carbon capture” technology at the C.P.2 site, “compressing CO2 at its sites and then transporting the CO2 and injecting it deep into subsurface saline aquifers where it will be permanently stored.” But that would only capture the carbon produced in the process of liquefying the gas and loading it on ships; it wouldn’t capture any of the far greater amounts of carbon produced when that gas is later burned overseas, or the heat-trapping methane released by the fracking process in the first place. By Symons’s estimate, the scheme will clean up less than one per cent of the mess, and will likely rely on tax credits to do it.
To the extent that anyone beyond Wall Street has paid much attention to this buildout, it’s been because of the havoc that it is wreaking on some local communities, which, by and large, are poor communities of color. Lylla Younes and Jake Bittle, writing in Grist, in conjunction with The Lens, described how the new construction in Plaquemines Parish has “transformed the lives of people who have lived in the 23,000-person parish for generations. The streets around the plant became choked with truck traffic, the marsh threaded with pipelines, and the quiet was replaced with the din of construction. Acres of wetland disappeared beneath concrete. The broad ocean skyline of the parish vanished behind a maze of steel.”
As Younes and Bittle reported, the situation in Cameron is at least as grim. John Allaire, a retired manager and engineer at an oil company, bought land there in 1998, when there were a few rigs and oil-storage tanks in the Gulf, but mostly just ponds and cheniere, the local name for the ancient ridges on the ocean-front dunes. If Allaire faces certain directions, he can still see the dunes. “They’re covered with trees—hackberry, live oaks, some holly. Pelicans, great egrets, great blue herons,” he told me, when I spoke with him last month. But, if he looks toward C.P.1, “at night, it looks like the Vegas strip.” He has been documenting thirty- to seventy-foot flames, “flaring” excess gas from the C.P.1 smokestack and releasing, according to Grist, “a cocktail of pollutants like carbon monoxide, black carbon, and volatile organic compounds like benzene and formaldehyde.” (Venture Global applied for a state permit in March to increase the amount of pollution it can vent by seventeen per cent, according to records retrieved by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.) Allaire is now working with staff from Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the local chapter of the Audubon Society, and the legal experts at EarthJustice in efforts to block the L.N.G. buildout in the area. Lake Charles, the nearest city, is home to about eighty thousand people, close to half of whom are Black and many of whom are poor.
Travis Dardar is an Indigenous Houma fisherman, who, like many generations of his family before him, grew up on the Isle de Jean Charles, an island off the Louisiana coast that had been inhabited mostly by Native Americans. In 2019, it became the first community in the country to be bought out by the federal government because of climate change; since 1955, it had lost ninety per cent of its land to the rising sea, and its residents were designated “climate refugees.” Dardar and his wife bought land in Cameron Parish, which ended up being half a mile from C.P.1 and three hundred and fifty feet from the proposed fence line for C.P.2. Venture Global bought them out and, earlier this year, they moved again, inland this time, to Kaplan, Louisiana.
Venture Global describes itself as being “committed to responsible environmental stewardship during all phases of its projects and will work to minimize impacts to the coastal ecosystem of Louisiana, coexisting with the local environment and our communities.” But people in those communities tell stories largely of bewilderment. “When I first moved to Cameron, it was beautiful,” Dardar told me. “When you woke up in the morning, you could hear the waves.” Then one day, “there were hundreds of yellow trucks all over the place.” If you map the project site, he said, “it’s on top of all the fishing grounds where we shrimp and oyster and crab.” The construction, he said, was a day-and-night siege; “they vibrate the pictures right off your wall and they don’t give a damn.”
One would hope that stories like that would be enough to move people across the country. But, so far, it hasn’t. The Gulf South—like the tar-sands country of Alberta, or the coal-seam mountaintops of West Virginia—is being turned into what has been called a “sacrifice zone,” often with the backing of the local power structure and of those hoping for new jobs. The C.P.2 proposal, for example, was announced in a joint news release from Venture Global executives and the state government. Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said that the company “has invested significantly in Louisiana’s economy, and I am proud to celebrate this exciting new project with them. The CP2 facility in Cameron will create more than 1,000 new permanent jobs and thousands of construction jobs in the area, which will have a significant impact on our economy.” (A spokesperson for the governor, in an e-mail, clarified that the more than a thousand jobs refers to “a combined total of direct and indirect jobs,” and added that “Louisiana is the only state in the Gulf South to have adopted a Climate Action Plan” to achieve “its stated commitment to achieve Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.” To that end, “the state has adopted an ‘all of the above’ energy transition strategy.” ) Meanwhile, the Americas L.N.G. & Gas Summit and Exhibition announced that this year it will return to the Golden Nugget resort in Lake Charles, with “the continued support and endorsement of our partners—City of Lake Charles, Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, Port of Lake Charles, Cameron Parish Port, Harbor and Terminal District, Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, and the police juries of Calcasieu and Cameron parishes.”
With that kind of regional support, Americans who will never visit the Gulf parishes will have to come to see that they, too, are on the front lines of this fight because of the facilities’ projected impact on the climate, a realization that should come easier after this summer’s siege of heat waves, smoke, and floods.
The demand for more sweeping climate action was on display last weekend in New York City, where, according to organizers, seventy-five thousand people marched through the streets. Biden, of course, may fear that if prices at the pump go up between now and next November, he’ll be blamed for it if he has done anything to reduce drilling. The thought may have underlain his decision to support the Willow complex. But, even if you accept that argument, it doesn’t apply to the L.N.G. buildout: that product is for overseas consumption, and the exportation of it will, logically, reduce the supply in the U.S. “If they keep this L.N.G. buildout, your electric bills are going to go way up, and your food costs, too,” Allaire, the oil-industry veteran, said. “Ninety per cent of our fertilizer in the United States is made with natural gas. If the price goes up, because we’re shipping it abroad, well, the price of vegetables goes up, too.”
So the Administration now has to decide whether it wants to play along with the mathematical gamesmanship that surrounds these exports, or whether it’s willing to provide an example of clear climate leadership that could resonate around the world. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission seems almost certain to sign off on C.P.2 at its next commission meeting, in October; it set the stage for approval in late July, on the ground that “the potential impacts of the project would not significantly affect local resources.” (It did not consider any of the global climate implications.) But the final word will come from the Department of Energy, which has to grant an export license before the L.N.G. from C.P.2 (and any other such project) can be sold to the European Union nations or in most of Asia; if the department declines to sign off, Venture Global will almost certainly not go ahead with the project. At the moment, the Department of Energy has to certify that such a license would be in “the public interest.” The House G.O.P. is now trying to strip that provision from the Natural Gas Act; the Illinois Democratic congressman Sean Casten tweeted on Monday that “they are trying to put the interests of the gas industry above the national interest. We can’t let them.”
There are many parallels here with the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, another energy boondoggle that most Americans had never heard of when it first became a national issue, in August, 2011—a year before the Obama-Biden team was up for reëlection. That month, activists from the tar-sands region in Canada and the Midwest states that the pipeline would have crossed came together with scientists and activists for a series of protests (I helped organize some of them) that elevated Keystone to a national issue. Within four months, the White House had put a moratorium on the plans; when President Brack Obama eventually rejected the pipeline, it was on the ground that it would make climate change worse.
On that same ground, C.P.2 appears at least as obvious a problem. Symons used some Sierra Club data on the terminal’s eventual emissions to compare them with those of the Willow Project. That Alaskan oil field will eventually produce six hundred and twenty-nine million barrels of oil; in the course of an expected thirty-year lifetime, burning that oil would produce about twenty-five thousand metric tons of CO2 a day. If you add together the CO2 and the methane that would be released as C.P.2’s L.N.G. is fracked, shipped, and combusted, it would come to more than half a million metric tons a day.
But two things have changed since 2011. One is that many environmentalists feel constrained in pushing against the Biden Administration, both because the Inflation Reduction Act established his climate credibility and because they’ve seen what a Trump Administration looks like. Several of the biggest groups—the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, and others—have already endorsed Biden. The fear of undercutting a Democratic President was a little less intense twelve years ago, because the alternative seemed likely to be someone like the candidate who eventually became the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, whose rational if not courageous position on climate change is far better than those of the G.O.P. candidates who appeared in last month’s debate or, of course, of the front-runner, who wasn’t there.
The other change, however, is that, in 2011, climate change was only beginning to show its fangs; most of the discussion was still theoretical, cast in the future tense. Now every day seems to bring a new disaster or an extreme-weather record broken, with this year seeing what have likely been the hottest days in more than a hundred thousand years. The list of ironies in the C.P.2 project is long, but none is clearer than the fact that the Lake Charles region is already an epic victim of the climate crisis, arguably more than anywhere else in the country. In 2005, a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, Rita, which began as a Category 5 hurricane, damaged Lake Charles badly. In 2020, Laura, a Category 4 hurricane, crushed the city, which had already been touched that season by the storms Cristobal, Hanna, and Marco, and then, two months later, once the city had got through Sally—and after we’d run out of hurricane names and gone to the Greek alphabet—Hurricane Delta struck. Lake Charles became the blue-tarp capital of the country, with roof after roof blown away. The Golden Nugget survived, but when the attendees gather there for the Americas L.N.G. & Gas Summit and Exhibition, in November, they’ll find themselves in the shadow of the CapitalOne Center—at twenty-two stories the tallest building in Lake Charles, but abandoned since Laura, because the gusts blew out so many of its windows.
In late August, Biden said that “practically speaking” he had declared a climate emergency. If so, C.P.2 is a place to prove it: if the federal government were to say no to the plant, it would represent a sea change in government policy. And a sea change is what we need. “If we get another hurricane like Rita, forget it,” Allaire said. “The only things left after that one were the blocks my house was sitting on, and a grate from my refrigerator.” But the more gas we burn the hotter the Gulf will get and the more the sea will rise and warm and fuel ever-stronger hurricanes. That’s the mathematical problem that Biden can start to solve this fall. ♦