The liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry is growing faster than ever. Sales of the supercooled fuel, which is made from fracked natural gas, skyrocketed over the past year as European buyers scrambled to replace Russian energy imports following the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
Three new projects to build or expand liquefaction capacity were announced during the first three months of 2023 alone. That includes two new export terminals—Power LNG in Galveston County, Texas, and Gulfstream LNG in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana—as well as a massive expansion that would nearly double the size of the country’s largest export terminal, Sabine Pass, in southwest Louisiana.
Those announcements were followed by two positive financial investment decisions in March, which will allow the companies developing the Plaquemines and Port Arthur LNG terminals to move forward with construction. And a lesser-known project that was announced back in 2019 has seemingly come back to life: the Qilak LNG terminal planned for Alaska’s North Slope, which would use ice-breaking ships to transport gas to Asia.
That’s on top of the 27 new or expanding LNG terminals already in the pipeline, most of which are planned for the Texas and Louisiana gulf coast. If they all materialize, together these 31 projects could triple the sector’s liquefaction capacity to around 22 trillion cubic feet per year over the next ten years. That’s more than four times the amount that Americans used in 2022 to run gas stoves, heat and cool their homes, warm their water, and run other gas-fueled appliances.
All of that raises an important question: Does the U.S. have enough natural gas to sustain the LNG industry’s rapid growth?
In its Annual Energy Outlook published in mid-March, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicted that the U.S. will remain a net fossil fuel exporter through mid-century. The agency expects strong international demand to drive natural gas production, which could increase by 15 percent, reaching 42 trillion cubic feet in 2050.
But with over 22 trillion cubic feet of liquefaction capacity proposed, that means the U.S. would have to export nearly 60 percent of the gas it produces to support the huge wave of gas export facilities slated to come online over the next decade. And those shares could be much higher if combined with pipeline exports to Mexico and Canada.
Last year, when the U.S. sent around 20 percent of its gas abroad through LNG and pipeline exports, some American households saw energy costs climb to their highest level in more than 25 years. Nationwide, heating costs soared as much as 28 percent compared to 2021 levels. This prompted a group of ten Senators to petition the Biden administration to “take swift action to limit U.S. natural gas exports and examine their impact on domestic energy prices.”
And New England states weren’t the only ones left in the cold. Families and businesses in Texas – the largest oil and gas producing state in the nation – saw gas prices increase by as much as 39 percent compared to a year ago.
“There is no question that record LNG exports are resulting in higher prices for families across the United States. There is a direct correlation,” said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program and member of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s Energy & Environmental Markets Advisory Committee and its Market Risk Advisory Committee.
That’s because “exports have globalized previously sheltered domestic consumer prices,” Slocum explains. American households and businesses are now forced to directly compete with buyers in Europe and Asia, which are willing to pay top dollar. Not only does this competition result in higher electricity and heating costs, but it also exposes American consumers to increasing price volatility. So if global energy markets are upended by a war or a climate disaster halfway across the world, that’s going to affect the price of natural gas here in the U.S.
But according to the government agencies responsible for permitting these projects, shipping LNG overseas is supposed to benefit the American public. Under the 1938 Natural Gas Act, government is only supposed to approve gas export projects if they’re deemed “consistent with the public interest.” But, according to Slocum, “the Department of Energy performs no meaningful analysis whatsoever to ensure that these exports are in the public interest.”
As he points out, the most recent assessment of whether LNG exports benefit the American public was conducted under the Trump administration. That 2018 study by the Department of Energy found that “increasing U.S. LNG exports under any given set of assumptions… leads to only small increases in U.S. natural gas prices.” The study also concluded that, “if U.S. households… hold stock in natural gas producers, they will benefit from the increase in the value of their investment” and that “these additional sources of income for U.S. consumers outweigh the income loss associated with higher energy prices.”
Not only have past studies ignored the real impacts that LNG exports have on energy prices back home, but they have also ignored their potential environmental impacts when assessing risks. If all 31 LNG projects that are currently proposed and under construction are built, they could increase the sector’s greenhouse gas footprint to over 117 million tons per year. That’s more climate-warming pollution than 28 new coal-fired power plants, or nearly 23 million gas-powered cars running for a year.
While the numbers are staggering, these potential greenhouse gas impacts would come only from operating the LNG terminals and liquefaction plants themselves. They do not include emissions from drilling and hydraulic fracturing, pipeline leaks, regasification terminals, or the eventual burning of gas once it reaches its final destination. If these upstream and downstream contributions are accounted for, the true climate footprint of LNG would be several times higher.
The air pollution released by LNG terminals disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color, who are more likely to live near these plants and to feel the economic burden of high energy costs.
“We don't want to see the most vulnerable American communities serve as collateral damage to market pricing. If we want to address the climate crisis, if we want to protect environmental justice communities, and if we want to protect the short-term economic interests of low-income Americans, we need to get off of fossil fuels,” Slocum concluded.