The United States is the world’s top producer of raw fossil fuels, but some U.S. residents could still face up to a 28 percent increase in the cost of heating their homes this winter, thanks in part to high fuel prices globally and slightly colder forecasted temperatures.
Exports of oil and gas extracted in the nation’s vast fracking fields ballooned in recent years, allowing fossil fuel and energy companies to increase profits and raise prices on consumers as they push to expand their industrial footprint with new pipelines, export terminals, and other sources of pollution, according to a new report from the watchdogs at Public Citizen. Exports are accelerating after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which threw international energy markets into turmoil and left much of Europe facing a crunch.
That means domestic oil and gas that would have helped hold down prices at home less than a decade ago will be sent abroad as temperatures drop and the rising costs put U.S. consumers in a pinch. Nearly 30 percent of crude oil produced in the U.S. was exported in the first six months of 2022, more than double amount exported five years ago, according to Public Citizen’s analysis of U.S. Energy Information Administration data. So far this year, natural gas exports were twice as high compared to 2017 levels.
“Over the past decade, the fossil fuel industry has reoriented itself to prioritize profits from consumers overseas, jacking up prices for American consumers, while putting the climate at peril, exploiting public lands and leaving marginalized Gulf Coast communities in the lurch,” said Alan Zibel, research director at Public Citizen and author of the report, in a statement.
Lower-income, Black and Indigenous communities along the Gulf Coast disproportionately bear the brunt toxic and cancer-causing pollution from oil and gas facilities, as well as damage from intensifying hurricanes fueled by climate change.
Travis Dardar lives in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, where he supports his family by fishing for shrimp and oysters in the shadow of a large liquified natural gas (LNG) export terminal that is under fire from environmentalists for releasing fiery and toxic flares. The terminal’s owner, Venture Global, is expanding the facility and has proposed building two more LNG terminals in the area, including one across the street from Dardar’s home.
“I feel like it’s over,” Dardar said, adding that Venture Global offered to buy him out and relocate his family, but it would be expensive to move to property by the water where he can continue to fish. “I mean, we don’t know what tomorrow brings.”
If federal regulators were to approve construction of the Venture Global export terminals and others proposed by industry, a total of nine LNG terminals would loom over coastal communities in southern Louisiana, according to a tally of federal data by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. At least 25 LNG export terminals are proposed nationally, and together they would spew 90 million tons of greenhouse gases each year. That’s roughly equivalent to the emissions from 20 new coal-burning power plants, or leaving 18 million gasoline-powered cars running for a year.
While also attempting to tackle high prices at home, the Biden administration has pushed to increase production and exports to Europe, where Russian President Vladimir Putin cut off natural gas to Germany and other countries in response to sanctions and embargoes on Russian oil. Refusing to do business with Russia is important for supporting Ukraine, where Putin launched a destructive and bloody war, but environmentalists warn the fossil fuel industry must not be allowed to exploit the crisis to build more pipelines and export terminals in the U.S.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is only the most recent disruption. U.S. oil and gas markets saw what Zibel calls “seismic changes” over the past decade. The frantic fracking boom that generated air and water pollution across the U.S. sent prices plummeting as climate concerns mounted, two reasons why the industry hemorrhaged investors and prices remain high. The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily reduced global demand for oil and gas, creating opportunities for profit once restrictions lifted and demand suddenly increased.
U.S. oil and gas exports have risen steadily since 2015, when Congress lifted a ban on crude oil exports and the industry pushed for new export terminals during the fracking boom. Unregulated exports left U.S. consumers increasingly exposed to volatile international energy markets, according to Zibel. A recent survey found that 69 percent of fossil fuel executives think the “age of inexpensive gas” in the U.S. will end by 2025 as exports expand to Europe.
Zibel reports that new export terminals, like the one operating near Dardar’s home in southern Louisiana, allowed the industry to further integrate in international markets while keeping prices higher at home, particularly for gas that heats about nearly half of all homes in the U.S. Meanwhile, the drilling rigs, pipelines, processing facilities and refineries that bring the fuel to global markets are locking in production that will release air pollution and cause damage to public lands and waters where drillers operate.
Zibel argues that rapidly reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is the best way out of these export conundrums, a goal the Biden administration is inching towards with new infrastructure spending.
However, since Russia invaded Ukraine, lobbyists and the industry are aggressively pushing the Biden administration to expand drilling, pipelines and export terminals, echoing calls from Republicans who falsely accuse the Biden administration of hamstringing the industry. (Oil production has increased under President Joe Biden for an array of reasons.) Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes historic climate spending but also clears the way for highly controversial pipelines and export terminals in return for investments in renewables.
Despite the threat of high energy bills, the White House has reportedly ruled out restrictions on natural gas exports this winter. Biden also tapped Amos Hochstein, who worked as an LNG executive during the Trump administration and has also advised a Ukrainian gas firm, to serve as a top adviser at the State Department. The White House calls Hochstein an “energy whisperer” who can help to navigate rough waters during a fuel crunch. For consumer advocates and climate activists, however, Hochstein is a sign that their concerns about domestic energy prices and fossil fuel pollution are fallen to the wayside.
Joanie Steinhaus, the Gulf program director at the Turtle Island Restoration Network, said frontline communities are already overburdened by pollution from fossil fuel infrastructure. Steinhaus and other activists are currently organizing to stop the Sea Port Oil Terminal, a proposed terminal on the coast of Texas that would export 2 million barrels of oil a day.
“Communities have had to sacrifice their health, face decreases in property value, the risk of leakage from pipelines, toxic emissions and the potential for catastrophic disasters,” Steinhaus said in a recent statement. “We need to stop the expansion of fossil fuel facilities and stop the escalation of climate change.”