New Study Questions LNG as a “Bridge Fuel” in Decarbonization

Yves here. For years, amplifying the position of many climate activists. Tom Neuburger has warned of the refusal of US policy makers, particularly Obama, to consider methane emissions in their climate change policies. Methane output is a major negative of fracking or fracked gas, now politely rebranded as LNG, presumably to downplay the shattering of rock structures and the related dangers of damage to aquifers and increased earthquake risk.

Now the Biden Administration has roused itself to consider this matter and is pausing new export licenses….after we got Europe in the position of depending on LNG as a result of destroying (or at least enabling the destruction) of the Nordstream pipelines (and as Putin reminded in his Tucker Carlson talk, the EU self-sanctioning by not using other Russian gas pipelines). Admittedly, the export license pause seems to be a symbolic matter for now, since the impact is on future, not current, exports. Perhaps experts can opine as to what the price impact might be if this ban holds.

A further, cynical thought: Forecasts years ago, and I trust they are still directionally correct, found that US LNG output would peak in the early 2030s, start declining over that decade, and fall sharply towards the end of the decade.

So irrespective of whether that profile has accelerated or been pushed a bit back by the interaction of Covid dampening energy demand versus increased international demand, US LNG output is set to dwindle sharply not too far down the road. So is the pause on export licenses intended to keep more of a limited resource for our own use?

This expected decline also means that US LNG is a short-lived proposition in infrastructure life terms. Do the financial and environmental cost studies of LNG terminals reflect that fact?

By Haley Zaremba, a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the Bay Area, and music/culture reviews. Originally published at OilPrice

  • President Joe Biden announced a pause on new LNG export licenses to assess their impact on domestic energy security, consumer costs, and the environment.
  • Recent studies and scientific letters argue that LNG may not be as clean as previously thought, potentially being worse for the climate than coal when considering the full lifecycle of its production and methane emissions.
  • The pause on LNG exports is contentious, with some arguing it will hinder global energy demands and environmental progress, while others see it as a necessary step towards cleaner energy alternatives.

For years, the petroleum industry has been trying to push liquefied natural gas as a clean energy source, or at least a cleaner energy source than other fossil fuels, touting its role as a stepping stone or ‘bridge fuel’ between higher-emissions fuels and clean energy in the decarbonization transition. But recent research shows that LNG may not always be cleaner than coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.

The debate over whether LNG is in reality a cleaner alternative to other fossil fuels has been reengaged in recent months as the Biden administration has announced that it will pause approvals of new licenses to export liquefied natural gas. Last Friday, President Joe Biden announced that during this freeze the United States Department of Energy will review and assess whether the nation’s considerable LNG exports are “undermining domestic energy security, raising consumer costs and damaging the environment.”

This pause will have widespread implications for global energy markets, as the United States was the single biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas in the world in 2023. According to LSEG data, full year exports from the U.S. rose 14.7% to 88.9 million metric tons (MT), but from 77.5 million metric tons in 2022.

As the Biden administration’s decision to pause new approvals makes waves around global energy markets, it’s also caused a major resurgence of the natural gas debate in scientific circles. We now know that natural gas is much more harmful for the environment than initially thought, but there is widespread disagreement about to what extent, and whether pausing exports is actually the right move for the environment.

In December 2023, 170 climate scientists signed onto a letter petitioning President Joe Biden to reject all plans to build more LNG export terminals going forward, and especially along the Gulf of Mexico. Their argument was based on the finding that, in stark contrast to the dominant energy transition narrative, liquefied gas is actually “at least 24 percent worse for the climate than coal.” This figure comes from a  forthcoming Cornell University study (which has not yet been peer reviewed).

The issue is not really the consumption of the natural gas itself, but emissions associated with the life cycle of liquefied natural gas production. The Cornell University figure comes from figuring in the carbon dioxide emissions that result from the liquefying process, which requires chilling natural gas to extremely cold temperatures, an energy-intensive ordeal.

Another major issue is the methane that is released during the extraction of natural gas. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. While it breaks up much more quickly in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it is 80 times more potent at warming than CO2 over a 20-year period. And peer–reviewed studies (like this onethis one, and this one) are increasingly indicating that natural gas produces much, much more methane over its life cycle than previously thought.

But other experts contend that these figures, while peer-reviewed, are politically motivated and the figures are inflated or skewed to tell a certain narrative that’s not necessarily consistent with reality. “It’s just extremely frustrating to even deal with claims like this, because we talk about settled science,” says Dan Byers, vice president of policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he works on environmental issues in a recent Scientific American report. “The notion that, you know, LNG and natural gas reduce emissions by displacing coal is completely well established. So it feels like we’ve got like a flat earth situation going on with these claims.”

recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal goes as far as to contend that the Biden administration’s new LNG export pause will actually harm the environment more than it helps. In the op-ed Chris Barnard, president of the American Conservation Coalition, argues that if the United States takes a step back from meeting global energy demands, other energy powers including Russia and China will only be too happy to fill those shoes. He argues that the result will be a more volatile geopolitical landscape as well as an increase of more carbon-intensive energy sources on the market.

As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. But the one thing that’s certain is that regardless of whether coal or LNG is cleaner, clean energy buildout will always be the cleanest. Of course, LNG will continue to have a role in stabilizing, and yes, bridging a smooth energy transition. But the quicker we can move away from it, the better.

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  1. anaisanesse

    The decisionof the EU/USA, completely political and Russophobic, to phase out pipeline gas from Russia not only has led to deindustrialisation of Germany and other parts of Europe, and of course greater expenses for all of European consumers, but the gas is not “conserved” or not used, but is easily sold to Asian nations -consumers who benefit and it keeps their costs down and makes them more competitive. An own goal? If only the USA and its “allies” used human intelligence!!

  2. vao

    So is the pause on export licenses intended to keep more of a limited resource for our own use?

    There seems to be a hint that this may well be a reason, since Biden’s decision was motivated by assessing whether ‘the nation’s considerable LNG exports are “undermining domestic energy security, raising consumer costs and damaging the environment.”’

  3. PlutoniumKun

    Although there are different ways of measuring CO2 vs methane, there is little doubt that in terms of climate impacts, natural gas by pipeline is barely better than coal, and LNG almost certainly worse – it takes a substantial amount of energy to compress and liquify the methane. Taking account of the long term impact of leaking fracked wells in the US (fracking hasn’t really taken off elsewhere), the long term impacts could well be much worse.

    That said, in most major grids gas is an important element in balancing as the transition to renewables gets underway. Unless the country is fortunate enough to have a lot of hydro -such as in Scandinavia – there is nothing else that can balance out loads to the same degree until large scale storage becomes economically feasible. Much depends on the scale and nature of the grid, but realistically renewables can only supply between 60-80% of total power until an alternative in place. One policy being pursued in Europe is using hydrogen – produced by surplus renewable energy – using existing gas CCGT plants – this is technically and economically feasible in many areas, although of course there are issues with hydrogen if its not genuinely produced from surplus electric power – which is already a huge issue in Europe, there have been multiple curtailments of wind power this winter due to high winds and lower than expected demand.

    Another issue that causes some confusion is the use of gas plants for short term peaking loads within individual isolated circuits – a lot of these are being built, but in reality they are replacing distillate or diesel plants and are not really that significant in overall emission terms.

    The biggest issue though with gas demand is increasingly not for electric power but for industry. It will require a lot of investment to change many industries to alternatives (usually electricity). A particular issue may well be fertilizers – the shutting down of nitrogen plants in Europe could well have major impacts on agriculture. Unfortunately, farmers are choosing to block roads in protest at these costs rather than, say, just plant more legumes, but thats the world we are in.

    1. AG

      How much do we know for sure re: the pollution impact of pipeline gas emissions?

      Before the war in UKR started environmental organisations in Germany had prepared to file a lawsuit against commissioning Nordstream 2. With a possibly positive verdict then demanding a shut-down of Nordstream 2 from the newly elected Berlin government.

      Actually that was the major “threat” to those pipelines. “In the old days”.
      The US took care of that in a more spectacular way.

      But the technical question – pollution/gas pipelines – in comparison to other sources is still of concern.

      I do remember there was heated debate over this re: NS-2.
      As a mere reader I didn´t know what to think.

      Considering the coal issues vs. shutdown of German nuclear plants, the progress of “green” steel production, and so on.

      I think this planned court action against NS-2 has been completely forgotten about. Like it never happened…

      p.s. What does the Russian science community think about all this? They surely must have considerable expertise.

  4. MicaT

    I am still confused by the pause on export licenses. Is the license something that is needed before approval/construction or after completion?

    I would think before because who would spend billions to then not be approved?

    Here is a list of operating and under construction LNG.

    Another govt list shows about 12 more FERC approved but not under construction.

    1. BeliTsari

      It’s to encourage fracking, elsewhere, Gaza & other “Israeli” gas & Ihor’s pipelines & various INSANE fantasies of couping, overthrowing, absorbing some alliance of oilgarchs pipedreams as “Western DEMOCRACY” exploits all the methane, percolating out from where permafrost used to be? I always LOVE it, when NEW studies disclose what we’d ALL discussed (here, since ~2009) what TXSharon, ProPublica, DeSmogBlog, Post Gazette & Tony Ingraffea’s lectures envisioned, as slick-water fracking hit the Marcellus?

        1. BeliTsari

          Funny, to cite Forbes! But everything else’s SEOd down Google’s memory hole? Certain stories seem to disappear faster. Katrina, messing up Shell’s deep water Gulf TLP enabled Albright’s slick-water fracking Ponzi scheme at home, but yeah… we’d wanted to cut CHEAP Rooski gas, for ages! Aside from destroying all life on the planet, the technology was a YOOJ money-pit!

  5. Simon

    The motivation here will be nothing to do with climate change, which is why such a decision seems so out of the blue and feels so discordant with what we know about Biden’s fossil fuel actions (actions rather than stated policy hot air). It doesn’t seem like Germany needs any (more) arm-twisting to do the US’s bidding, or further punishment for being open to moving towards Russia pre-proxy war.

  6. JonnyJames

    This is a very timely piece, given Biden’s phony concern, and election year pandering and grandstanding.
    I wonder how much methane emissions were released when the Nordstream pipelines were blown up?
    (And the emissions and environmental destruction of bombing Gaza into the Stone Age, bombing Libya, Iraq, Syria, etc. and the US military spewing toxic materials over a good part of the globe.)

    Speaking of the Carlson interview, it was great to see Putin expose Carlson’s hypocrisy and ignorance regarding China. Ol’ ‘ucker is a great example of a silver-spoon-in-mouth, ivory tower coward and warmonger who would promptly soil himself if exposed to any danger. He is no different than the “neocons”. He is great spokesperson for the controlled opposition. CIA? I don’t know, but he’s doing a cracking job for them.

    The capital outlays and the transportation of LNG to Europe is hugely wasteful and inefficient as well. And who’s gonna pay for that?

  7. King

    I recall seeing references to NG as a ‘bridge’ somewhere in the late 2000’s I think. But that was in the context of a possible hydrogen vehicle economy where gas stations would become hydrogen stations. It was contemplated that build out of the electrical generation and distribution would take a while so best to jump start with NG to hydrogen at the filling stations. And many of the quick to setup CCGT while renewables got built. Grid management mostly to be achieved by reducing electrolysis. Goals achievable in 10-15 years just based on lifecycle of a typical car.

    Here we are 15+ years later and batteries ‘won’ for cars. Now I see this possible ‘bridge’ as wholly in the rear view mirror.

  8. NotThePilot

    A bit of a tangent, but PlutoniumKun’s comparison to other energy options got me thinking:
    What if there’s a cultural substrate to why societies choose the energy sources that they do?

    And maybe it’s a bit of a feedback loop where the energy sources shape the culture in turn, almost like different forms of agriculture do. Maybe a society dependent on distribution from large-scale plants (nuclear, hydroelectric) will also tend towards centralization, just like ancient societies dependent on irrigation?

    The upshot is that maybe there’s a subtle cultural urge to over-extract things for market or export in America, just like with agriculture. That would explain US fracking. The output and the obsession are two sides of the same coin, the actual fixed investment decisions by government and business.

    That also kind of lines up with the semi-religious feelings toward wind and solar, and on top of climate, maybe why they’re paradoxically easier to build out in states with a “pioneer” mindset, not the ones that think of themselves as “eco-friendly”. Adding a windmill or solar panel is almost the energy equivalent of sod-busting, but America only seems to tolerate the sort of big-picture planning needed to carry off a large thermal or hydroelectric plant during crises.

    1. JonnyJames

      In that regard: yes, very little big-picture or long-term planning. Whatever boosts short-term profits, subsidies, tax breaks, and jacks up stock prices is the planning. Crudely put: The oligarchy plan the US economy, the politicians and judges are their servants.

      1. NotThePilot

        Right, that’s sort of what got me thinking about this.

        More immediately, I live in a part of the country that AFAIK is simply not optimal for wind, solar, or geothermal. There’s some and probably good sites for more, but my guess is that in this neck of the woods, we ultimately have, do, and indefinitely will rely on other sources.

        We have natural gas for the short-term, but my guess is it will become uneconomical here years before out further west. That leaves coal, biomass, and nuclear (all thermal plants) or hydroelectric though. My understanding is that all of those sources are best when really scaled-up.

        And while this state is definitely the most communally-minded I’ve lived in so far, it’s still in America and seems to have the same cultural hangups. So all the talk at the state level still seems to be about solar, wind, and electric cars (a whole different issue in this climate).

        Meanwhile, I always think of the French and their fleet of nuclear plants, for all their problems. Sure, de Gaulle was a talented leader and it was a unique time, but at the same time, haven’t the French government and people been pulling off bold, ambitious, centrally-planned ventures for over a millennium now? It’s like the times when their society’s centralizing functions break down are decadent exceptions, whereas Americans can only come together like that in a once-a-century, “Fourth Turning” event.

  9. rjs

    there’s no point to a bridge anymore. the valley of Doom we’d like to get over is still there, but where we wanted to get to on the other side is gone.

    with January’s record heat, we already blew past the 1.5 C limit on an annual basis; then there’s this: (see graphs)

    Global sea surface temperatures are much higher than ever recorded, and atmospheric carbon dioxide just jumped up about 4ppm in a couple of days.

    hot oceans can no longer hold the CO2 they’ve been absorbing for years, and are releasing it back to the atmosphere..

  10. David Jacobsen

    For Fukushimas sakes use carbon capture and storage technology to extract part of the world’s accelerated warming gases, pre-burn! Example: Open up the butchered deep coal mines in Britain. Closed for political reasons not environmental or cost saving for the economy. Yes too, plant more trees, protect the rain forests, reduce reliance on oil with its by-products spewed out on roads, at sea and in the air. Increase alternative energy sources to a large scale in medium to long term. Now though there is a way just little political will to safely extract millions of tons of coal and safely burn it.


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