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Biden Bets on the Climate Crowd

According to a Times report, the administration is delaying approval of a major — and majorly controversial — LNG export terminal.

A natural gas plant.
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This morning, as far as anyone knew, the U.S. was considering whether to approve 17 new facilities for the export of liquified natural gas. By this afternoon, in a move destined to ripple through the race for the White House, those considerations were off. According to reporting by The New York Times, Biden officials have paused their decisionmaking, instead asking the Department of Energy to widen its review of the first of these 17 — known as Calcasieu Pass 2, or CP2 — to include effects on the global climate.

“Um, I think we all just won,” wrote Bill McKibben — perhaps the project’s staunchest foe — in a newsletter sent out just a few hours later. “Yes,” he wrote, “there are always devils in the details. And it doesn’t guarantee long-term victory — it sets up a process where victory is possible (to this point, the industry has gotten every permit they’ve asked for). But I have a beer in my hand.”

That possible breaking of historical precedent partially explains why McKibben is so exhilarated. Another reason has a lot to do with an analysis of the climate effects of U.S. LNG exports, released in November by energy analyst Jeremy Symons. Among his most incendiary findings was that, if all 17 export terminals were approved, the emissions related to the fuel that would flow through them would exceed the annual greenhouse gas emissions of the entire European Union.

This analysis was not subject to peer review, and it relies on another set of findings from Cornell University researcher Robert Howarth showing that “the footprint for LNG is greater than that of either coal or natural gas;” these findings are subject to peer review but have not yet passed that test. That’s not to say either is inherently suspect, but neither is exactly a consensus opinion.

Biden’s administration has itself been split over the decision, according to reporting last week in Bloomberg. The U.S. became the largest global exporter of LNG after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, according to more Bloomberg data, and some in the administration would rather continue to press that geopolitical advantage. But others — including Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and climate adviser John Podesta — pressed back. “Overall, top advisers are broadly aligned on the need to make changes — especially after the U.S. and nearly 200 other nations committed in December to transition away from fossil fuels,” the Bloomberg authors cautioned. “The fault lines are over how aggressive to be.”

Heatmap reached out to the White House and got a “no comment” in response — neither a confirmation nor a denial, nor any kind of signal of what may lie ahead. Let’s assume, then, that the Times got it right. Where does that leave us?

Republican leaders and their surrogates were ready with attacks even before this latest development. “Biden Toys With an LNG Export Permitting Ban,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board trumpeted on Monday. On Wednesday, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed (falsely) on the Senate floor that “the administration’s war on affordable domestic energy has been bad news for American workers and consumers alike.” And, of course, former President Donald Trump has made Biden’s supposed antipathy for American energy consumers a staple of his campaign pitch to re-enter the White House.

The thing is, Biden’s climate policies are actually pretty popular, even if most people don’t know what they are. A substantial majority of Americans — and an overwhelming majority of both Democrats and Independents — acknowledge that the climate is changing because of human activity and want to see the government do things like provide tax incentives for energy-efficient homes and make it easier to build new wind farms, , according to Heatmap’s polling, both of which the Biden administration is doing. (Of course, our results also find that most Americans, albeit fewer of them, want to make fossil fuel expansion easier, too.)

There are plenty of big questions remaining — not least of which is whether Biden has, in fact, put off making a decision on these LNG terminals, but also how such a decision will ripple through the global energy economy. (Although even in deciding not decide on the expected timeline, Biden has at the very least raised costs for the developers of these export facilities, which is a decision in its own right.)

What was never in question is that this would be a major campaign issue, no matter what Biden did. It looks like he has cast his bet in favor of the climate crowd. We’ll see how it plays.

Jillian Goodman

Jillian is Heatmap's deputy editor. Before that, she was opinion editor at The Information and deputy editor at Bloomberg Green. Read More

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