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The Dartmouth
February 26, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Bryant: Climate Politics Defeat Climate Action

The evidence is unclear whether the Biden administration’s delay of natural gas export terminals will actually reduce emissions.

Last Friday, the Biden administration delayed its approval of 17 liquid natural gas export terminals, including an expansion of the Calcasieu Pass 2 terminal on the coast of Louisiana that would have made it the largest in the country. Though the delay of the export terminals will decrease American exports of natural gas, it is not clear that it will actually reduce global emissions. Biden’s willingness to pause the projects due to shaky evidence signals a lack of solution-oriented climate action. Facing re-election, the President has prioritized the appearance of emissions reductions, not actual emission reductions. Young voters should keep this in mind when they go to the polls this year.

The expansion project at Calcasieu Pass, La., known as CP2, is slated to cost $10 billion and would export up to 20 million tons of natural gas per year, increasing U.S. export capacity by more than 20%. The U.S. Department of Energy is required to review plans for the project to determine subjectively whether it is in “the public interest.” Similar natural gas projects have undergone this review and never been stymied by environmental concerns, but on Friday the Biden Administration delayed the approval process, effectively stopping CP2 and 16 other export terminal projects in their tracks. 

The decision makes a certain amount of sense — natural gas poses significant emissions risks. It emits methane, which is a greenhouse gas several times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term. Methane can leak into the atmosphere at any point in the natural gas supply chain, from production to processing to end use. The export of liquid natural gas is particularly harmful because it must be liquefied before transport, which is an incredibly energy intensive process. If completed, CP2 would liquefy more natural gas than anywhere else in the U.S. 

However, natural gas also has some notable benefits. Natural gas burns cleaner than coal and has returned U.S. energy emissions to mid-1980s levels. The New England power grid that services Dartmouth, for example, generates the majority of its electricity from natural gas, followed distantly by nuclear and hydropower imported from Quebec. Natural gas has been hailed as a “transition fuel” that could allow developed countries to continue consuming lots of energy while reducing emissions until carbon-free sources are able to meet demand. 

Natural gas produced in the U.S. accrues additional foreign policy benefits. Every ton of gas other countries purchase from the U.S. means less demand for Russian energy sources of all types. U.S. natural gas will prevent the European Union from enriching the Russian government and indirectly funding the war in Ukraine. It will also give the U.S. the opportunity to ensure that as much of our natural gas supply chain as possible is leak-free — the Biden administration can only enforce emissions standards on producers and processors within the country.

Beyond these immediate effects of natural gas, it is unclear whether the increased supply of the fuel on world markets will decrease the consumption of dirtier sources like coal and oil, or if it will simply incentivize additional consumption above current energy levels. Increased U.S. exports will lower natural gas prices and increase global consumption. This may be emissions-negative if gas replaces coal or oil consumption, but it may be emissions-positive if it simply increases global energy consumption. The answer to this question will determine whether or not CP2 actually reduces global emissions.

Unfortunately, no one knows the answer right now. One oft-cited analysis of the decision details the increased emissions from U.S. sources caused by the project but makes no mention of the global emissions impact. It may be the case that Biden’s delay of CP2 will in fact increase emissions and make climate change worse, as countries continue to burn coal and oil that they could have replaced with cheaper natural gas.

Biden’s willingness to publicly halt CP2 and the other export terminals based on mixed evidence suggests a political maneuver is at play. With the general election less than a year away, Biden intends to shore up his support from climate-concerned voters after a term of lukewarm climate action. His desire to keep gas prices low and supply European allies with alternatives to Russian energy have prevented his administration from taking aggressive action against fossil fuels. 

A recent report from researchers at the University of Colorado found that though climate change is not a top priority among most voters, belief in it can serve as a bellwether of a candidate’s credibility. They also found evidence that if Republicans had embraced climate change in 2020, they would have received an additional 3% of the vote in the presidential election — enough to win the White House. In an effort to solidify his credibility as the climate-friendly candidate, Biden has taken public action that may not actually be climate-friendly. 

This style of climate politics ultimately prevents real, effective action against climate change. The Biden administration wants to seem climate-friendly without actually bearing the real costs of effective climate action. The US Export-Import Bank, an agency of the federal government that finances projects abroad, is slated to fund a $13 billion natural gas export terminal similar to CP2 in Papua New Guinea. The project has intense local support for the economic opportunities it would bring, but climate activists in the U.S. are pressuring the Biden administration to withdraw financing. Like CP2, the emissions trade-offs presented by the project are complex and, for the moment, unclear. At the time of this writing, the Biden administration has not demonstrated any intention to stop the project. Having achieved the appearance of public victory closer to home with the cancellation of CP2, Biden may be less willing to take real, costly climate action.

I want to emphasize two takeaways for Dartmouth students. First, be skeptical of climate politics at the polls. Biden’s climate record is strong but imperfect. U.S. oil production, for example, reached an all-time high in 2023, resulting in a decline in gas prices over the past year. Many climate policies require trade-offs, and voters have a civic duty to weigh these trade-offs. 

Second, it’s important to determine when a climate policy does not face trade-offs. It is possible that CP2 will reduce global emissions, lower energy prices and reduce European dependence on Russia without incurring any downsides. It’s just a matter of doing the math. As Dartmouth students make their first career choices, they should consider putting their education to use by solving these complex problems that will have huge implications for the future of climate change.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.