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Politics

Biden Paused New LNG Terminals. The Real Test of the Climate Movement Begins Now.

A victory for activists also represents a political gamble for the president.

Liquified Natural Gas.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Perhaps the biggest political test of the climate movement has now arrived.

There are a few ways to think about this. But first, the facts: The Biden administration will temporarily stop approving new liquified natural gas export terminals, allowing the Energy Department to study the effect that they have on the climate, the White House announced on Friday.

The decision is a victory for climate activists, who had demanded President Joe Biden halt the growth of what may be the country’s most important fossil fuel industry. It also throws into question whether some of the biggest pending LNG projects — such as Calcasieu Pass 2, or CP2, a proposed Louisiana terminal that activists have dubbed a “carbon mega bomb” — will ultimately get built.

The pause could also complicate Biden’s foreign policy, which has used America’s status as a major energy supplier to pacify allies and wield economic might. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 and throttled gas supplies to Europe, the United States has used its vast stores of liquified natural gas to supply allied countries with energy that conventional estimates say is less climate-polluting than coal.

In a statement, Biden framed the pause as a crucial part of his administration’s ambitious climate policy.

“From Day One, my administration has set the United States on an unprecedented course to tackle the climate crisis at home and abroad,” Biden said. “This pause on new LNG approvals sees the climate crisis for what it is: the existential threat of our time.

While the approvals are paused, the Energy Department will study the effect liquified natural gas export terminals could have on domestic and global greenhouse gas emissions. That review will likely last more than a year, almost certainly pushing a final decision until after the presidential election.

Biden also said the pause could be suspended in the case “of unanticipated and immediate national security emergencies.”

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm joined a call with reporters on Thursday. “As our exports increase,” she said, “we must review export applications using the most comprehensive up-to-date analysis of the economic, environmental and national security considerations.”

Although the United States only began exporting liquified natural gas in 2016, it is now the world’s top exporter of the fossil fuel. And the country’s dominance in the industry is growing. By 2027, a slate of new liquified natural gas facilities are set to open in North America, including several in the U.S., doubling the continent’s export capacity.

I think it’s fair to say that the Biden administration took many climate experts — a different class than activists, to be clear — by surprise. Liam Denning, a Bloomberg columnist who is no enemy of the green transition, dubbed the pause “clever, clever politics and bad policy.”

The activist case against liquified natural gas turns on an incendiary new analysis by Robert Howarth, a Cornell professor of ecology and environmental biology, that claims exporting natural gas could be significantly worse than coal for the climate. Howarth’s analysis has not been published in a scientific journal, but it has been cited repeatedly by the climate journalist and activist Bill McKibben, who has emerged as perhaps the leading opponent of building the new terminals. Using Howarth’s math, CP2 and other export terminals start to look worse than the Willow pipeline in Alaska that the Biden administration approved last year.

It’s hard to imagine Biden making this decision if the campaign wasn’t freaking out about getting Gen Z and younger Millennials to vote. The president’s polling among young voters has been so abysmal lately that it defied belief at first, and young voters widely oppose how America is handling Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip. This is more than a messaging problem: Young voters have a substantive policy disagreement with the Biden administration about the most salient international issue of the last six months.

The administration seems to be hoping a pause on LNG approvals will help reverse that dismal momentum. Yet doing so will bring its own electoral risks. In November, Heatmap polled roughly 1,000 Americans about key climate issues. While we didn’t ask what Biden should do about natural gas pipelines specifically, we did ask a more wide-ranging question about the recent March to End Fossil Fuels, which drew tens of thousands of demonstrators to New York in September. Protesters demanded, among other things, that Biden suspend or revoke approvals for all new fossil-fuel infrastructure.

Here was our mouthful of a poll question:

In September, more than 50,000 people marched in New York City demanding that the Biden administration and Congress “end fossil fuels.” These activists want the Biden administration to stop all oil exports, block new oil and gas pipelines from being built, and ban any company from drilling on government-owned land. These policies would increase gasoline prices, but some scientists say they are essential to slowing down the dangerous increase in global temperatures. Do you support or oppose the Biden administration and Congress adopting policies aimed at permanently ending the oil, gas, and coal industries?

Respondents were split — and, frankly, confused. Forty-two percent of Americans opposed ending the fossil-fuel industry; 41% supported it. Nearly 20% of Americans said they were unsure what Biden and Congress should do. And while sunsetting the fossil fuel industry won majority support among Democrats and liberal independents, a plurality of moderate independents said they would oppose such a policy. Two-thirds of Republicans rejected it, too.

I will confess that I am not sure that the American public, in practice, is as split on taking aggressive steps to end the fossil-fuel industry as the poll finds. That’s because elsewhere in our poll, we found that 62% of Americans said they supported the federal government “making it easier to drill for fossil fuels and build new fossil fuel pipelines.” Some sizable percentage of voters seemingly want Biden both to support fossil fuels and kill fossil fuels — a logical impossibility.

Chart of responses to poll question by age.

But the results of the fossil fuel march question become more interesting — and more politically relevant, I think — when you break them out by age group. The young and the old, we found, were divided on the fossil fuel industry. Slightly more than half of adults aged 18 to 34 said Biden and Congress should work to shut it down. But most older adults, defined here as anyone 65 and older, opposed such a move.

When you look deeper beneath the hood, those results get even more complicated. Of the young adults who support ending the fossil-fuel industry, most said they were “somewhat” in support of the idea. But of the older adults who opposed it, a majority were “strongly” against the idea. In other words, the largest share of young people were weakly for ending the fossil-fuel industry, while the largest share of older people were strongly against it.

That poses a dilemma for Biden. While younger and middle-aged adults drive social media discourse and shape media coverage, it is the old who consistently show up to vote. In that way, the fossil-fuel industry is — like the Gaza war — a young/old scissor issue; it divides the electorate along age lines in a way guaranteed to alienate some part of the president’s coalition. (Of course, most older Americans won’t see much of the consequences of greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuels in their lifetime — but that fact, while ethically relevant, does not have immediate electoral bearing.)

The one grace for the president is that the fossil-fuel issue doesn’t divide Democrats as much, per se; about two-thirds of older Democrats said that they would back a plan to shut down the oil and gas industry. Yet self-identified independents, whom the president must win in November, were more evenly split. There is no easy out.

McKibben has declared provisional victory over the issue. “Joe Biden has just done more than any president before him to check the expansion of dirty energy,” he wrote on X when the first unconfirmed reports broke. “This is the biggest check any president has ever applied to the fossil fuel industry, and the strongest move against dirty energy in American history,” he later elaborated. I will be curious if that message breaks through — it is an endorsement that I think many young voters would be surprised to hear.

Under Biden, Congress has passed the most aggressive climate legislation in U.S. history — not only in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act, with its tax incentives for clean energy, but also the bipartisan infrastructure law, which directed hundreds of billions to public transit and next-generation energy research. Yet instead of celebrating that victory, many climate-concerned young voters — or at least the environmentalist groups that purport to speak for them — spent much of 2023 fixated on the president’s approval of the Willow pipeline. While I’ve never seen a scientific sample, it’s pretty clear that the negative news about Willow broke through among young voters to a far greater extent than the positive news about the IRA, even though the IRA will reduce greenhouse gas emissions far more than the Willow pipeline will increase them.

With the LNG pause, the Biden administration has avoided another Willow “betrayal”-style story among the youngs. But it may also have invited negative coverage from other factions of the press — including business and energy analysts who doubt Howarth’s analyses and remain more equivocal about LNG. This is why this moment is such a test for climate activists: If they cannot generate a positive news cycle for the president at this moment — or rather, if they can’t convince young people that Biden has done something good on climate change — then their utility in the coalition will come into question.

Below all of this lurks a possibility that would be truly toxic for climate politics: that the social media-driven environment in which younger adults marinate can only direct attention to negative stories. What if X, Instagram, and TikTok generate outrage and nihilism far more easily than support and solidarity? That would be dangerous not only for climate politics, but also for the entire progressive agenda, which requires the public — perhaps above all — to believe in the possibility of mutual uplift and civic competency.

Biden is presiding over a country in profound transition, trying to manage and redirect subterranean rivers of history that — much to his campaign’s chagrin — remain well outside his control. The United States is stuck between two regimes, two economies: the fossil-fueled, Middle East-managing policy of old, and the clean, climate-friendlier, Asia-focused policy of the future. Voters are split, too. As much as Biden officials and young people might want to push the economy toward the latter, America keeps getting dragged back toward the former — by its economy, by its electorate, and by events themselves.

Robinson Meyer profile image

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.

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