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Exporting US Fracked Gas Is Far Worse for the Climate Than Coal, Study Finds

If all proposed export terminals are built, the climate-warming emissions would be equivalent to 532 coal plants.

A chimney from the Linden Cogeneration Plant is seen in Linden, New Jersey, on April 22, 2022.

The next big fight over fossil fuels is brewing in coastal Louisiana, where protests by local fisherman against massive liquified gas export terminals are evolving into a nationwide movement to stop what a growing number of experts and environmentalists warn is a climate emergency.

Venture Global, a giant in Louisiana’s fossil gas export industry, is awaiting federal approval for Calcasieu Pass 2 (CP2), which would be the nation’s largest terminal for liquefying and exporting refined methane overseas. CP2 would join existing terminals in a region where petrochemicals already dominate, and a cluster of additional facilities are proposed or under construction.

Venture Global’s existing liquefied gas terminal in southern Louisiana’s Cameron Parish received 2,000 violations from regulators during its first year and a half of operation, including for releasing air pollutants such as carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds. In four incidents involving “thermal oxidizer trips” between June and August 2022, the facility accidentally released more than 26,000 pounds of methane and 3,600 pounds of cancer-causing benzene, according to the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

Locals have organized flotillas of boats to protest the buildout of export terminals as massive ocean tankers disrupt waterways used by fishers and shrimpers, and now a nationwide movement is demanding the Biden administration refuse to issue federal permits for liquified natural gas exports, also known as LNG. In June, residents of the town of Cameron were ordered to evacuate after an explosion at an electric substation powered by LNG, one of multiple recent industrial explosions and chemical fires in southern Louisiana that left Cameron residents worried about what additional dangers CP2 could bring.

“Gas exports have destroyed us this year, not just shrimping, but crabbing, fishing, and oysters,” Cameron Parish fisherman Tad Anthony Thierot told Truthout in an email. “If something is not done, it will bankrupt us by next year.”

Environmentalists say the push for LNG exports is nothing less than a “carbon bomb” that would virtually erase any gains the U.S. makes toward meeting its climate goals, due to methane leakage and the vast amount of energy needed to produce, refine, transport and burn the fossil gas once it reaches foreign markets. Throughout its lifecycle, the fossil gas running through CP2 alone would be produce the equivalent emissions of 51 coal power plants annually, according to the Sierra Club.

“We are running a fire sale at the end of the world, and it’s got to stop, and it’s got to stop now,” climate activist and author Bill McKibben told reporters on Tuesday.

“This is not a secondary fight — the scale of this is beyond belief.”

Fed by a glut of methane produced in the vast fracking fields of Texas and other states, the U.S. fossil fuel industry has become the world’s largest exporter of liquified natural gas thanks to five export terminals along the Gulf Coast and two on the Atlantic coast that are capable of liquifying a combined 14 billion cubic feet of fossil gas per day. The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects 20 billion cubic feet to be exported daily by 2025 as more terminals begin operating on the Gulf Coast.

Fracked gas is liquified at extremely low temperatures and loaded on to massive ocean tankers bound for markets in Europe and Asia. Three additional LNG export terminals are under construction, and industry is pushing for a massive buildout of dozens of expansions, additional terminals and related LNG infrastructure in the Gulf South and Alaska.

Methane is a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide, and it leaks into the atmosphere during the lengthy process of producing, storing, transporting, liquefying and shipping fossil gas overseas, making the greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. LNG exports worse for the climate than burning coal, according to new research touted by McKibben and others.

“This is not a secondary fight — the scale of this is beyond belief,” McKibben said.

For years, the industry and allied politicians have framed “natural gas” as a “bridge fuel” that burns cleaner than coal and argued that increased fracking and exports would help other countries reduce climate-warming emissions. While this may have been true when the talking point was first deployed more than a decade ago, the fracking boom has since transformed the industry and the U.S. landscape. The claim that gas is cleaner than coal is not just outdated, it’s completely baseless when LNG exports are considered.

Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University, studied the entire “lifecycle” of LNG and concludes in a paper released to journalists this week that U.S. exports of fracked gas produce between 24 percent and 274 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than burning coal. Howarth said he used relatively conservative but independent emissions estimates in his calculations, while federal regulators rely on data provided by fossil gas companies to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In Louisiana, the industry wasted $82 million worth of methane in 2019, largely from leaky infrastructure and the practice of venting and flaring of excess methane into the atmosphere.

“The Department of Energy has relied on EPA’s official numbers … those have been too low for a better part of the decade,” Howarth told reporters. “Hundreds of studies by independent scientists have found that industry self-reporting is just plain way too low.”

Indeed, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year found that methane pollution from the fossil gas industry was 70 percent higher between 2010 and 2019 than operators reported.

In Louisiana, where lower-income residents face skyrocketing energy bills, the fossil gas industry wasted $82 million worth of methane in 2019, largely from leaky infrastructure and the practice of venting and flaring of excess methane into the atmosphere. That’s more than enough to cover residential gas expenses for two-thirds of the state, according to a study commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The EPA says data collection has improved since 2019, and the industry’s major players are already taking steps to capture more fugitive methane in anticipation of regulations the EPA has been working on for years. However, the process of taking raw methane from U.S. fracking fields, transforming it into LNG, and shipping it on long voyages overseas vastly increases the amount of fossil fuels needed for transport and methane pollution leaking from pipes, storage tanks and other infrastructure.

Each export terminal is slated to operate for decades, locking in emissions for years and forcing U.S. consumers to compete with countries across the globe for lower energy prices. If every proposed LNG facility were built, the Sierra Club estimates the full climate impact would equal the pollution from 532 coal plants annually.

Sen. Jeff Merkley is one of a small but growing number of lawmakers speaking out against gas exports after a proposal to build a terminal in his home state of Oregon was scrapped. Merkley said the industry still enjoys broad support in Congress, where “natural gas” is still viewed as cleaner than coal.

“If CP2 and all of the 20 of the proposed additional terminals are built, the climate impact is as big as all the emissions from all of the European Union,” Merkley said.

Public opposition to LNG exports is growing far beyond the embattled fishing grounds of Cameron Parish. More than 13,800 people have signed comments to the Department of Energy in opposition to a proposed LNG export terminal in Lake Charles, Louisiana. With help from prominent activists such as Bill McKibben, the Biden administration is under growing pressure to reject permits for CP2.

In Appalachia, direct action activists are still being arrested in a yearslong campaign against the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would transport LNG through mountainous terrain to export facilities on the East Coast.

Still, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved key permits for LNG export projects in September, with critics accusing the Biden administration of rubber stamping permits without considering the impact to the climate and rising domestic energy prices faced by consumers.

“Since it fails to meaningfully consider climate chaos, FERC’s process for determining whether fossil gas projects are in the public interest is fundamentally broken,” Merkley said in a September statement. “It’s impossible to come to any other conclusion when the Commission has approved 423 of 425 fossil gas projects that have come before it, continuing to rubber stamp projects while the world burns.”

If every proposed LNG facility were built, the Sierra Club estimates the full climate impact would equal the pollution from 532 coal plants annually.

The industry knows a backlash is brewing as it pushes for unlimited fossil gas exports.

Along with other centrist Democrats, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and former Rep. Kendrick Meek of Florida are members of the Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future Leadership Council, which describes itself as a “coalition of interested stakeholders that recognize the vital role natural gas and its infrastructure must play in the energy mix.”

Meek and Nutter recently penned an op-ed on behalf of the group loaded with rhetoric about “economic and environmental justice” and arguing that renewable energy alone cannot meet the affordable energy needs of lower-income families and Black communities.

“Policymakers must focus on improving energy infrastructure for communities of color instead of investing in ‘solutions’ that will consistently leave them behind,” Meek and Nutter wrote. “It will take years, if not decades, to solve energy inequities. Embracing the use of natural gas could make a sustainable, affordable energy future closer to becoming a reality.”

However, the op-ed makes no mention of the push to build massive LNG export infrastructure and send unprecedented volumes of fuel overseas. By 2050, U.S. consumers will face $14 billion in higher energy and heating costs annually thanks to LNG exports, according to the watchdog group Public Citizen.

“[The Biden administration] is not approving a substitution for coal, they are approving competition with wind and solar power,” said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program.

The op-ed also does not mention the fishers and Black environmental justice activists in Texas and Louisiana who are fighting against LNG to save their livelihoods and communities.

“What do we have to do to get these people to listen to us and stop polluting us? Stop making us sick?” said Sharon Lavigne, a prominent Black activist in Louisiana, after FERC approved LNG permits in September. “How many more people have to die because of these industries, because of our politicians?”

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