The First Big Fight of the U.S. General Election Is Over LNG
Americans have yet another acronym to learn.
When the White House announced on Friday that it would temporarily pause the approval of new liquified natural gas export terminals, it wasn’t just a victory for climate activists. It also drew the line for the first big showdown of the longest general election in modern history. With all due respect to Nikki Haley and some guy named Ryan Binkley, who are both nominally still in the Republican race, former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden are both acting, understandably, like the primaries are already over.
Trump wasted no time vowing to “approve the export terminals on my very first day back” in a campaign speech in Nevada, which his campaign made official in an email blast to supporters. Trump also claimed LNG is “good for the environment, not bad.” While LNG might not be the worst for the planet, only energy interests are bold enough to describe it as actually beneficial.
LNG was hardly a preordained battleground; though there’d been some jostling in the fall between activists and Republicans, Americans more generally are fuzzy on the specifics of how the U.S. meets its energy needs and divided on how to address them.
Still, the Biden campaign clearly picked its spot. For one thing, the administration’s LNG pause is a literal challenge to the existing methodology for assessing LNG projects, developed under the Trump administration back in 2018. The timing of the announcement further marks it as an opening salvo to young climate-conscious voters whose faith in the president suffered a bruising when he approved a ConocoPhillips oil exploration effort known as the Willow Project last spring. There could be some strategy here on the part of the campaign, as well — by baiting Trump into taking up LNG as a low-hanging talking point, it gets to amplify and contrast Biden’s climate agenda repeatedly in response.
But it’s a risky gambit. Attacks on LNG might not be as simple as they look at first glance — that is, after all, what the Energy Department’s review is all about, although it also likely kicks the decision to, conveniently, after Election Day. Heatmap polling also shows Americans aren’t very familiar with Biden’s landmark climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, even as experts believe “climate voters could make or break Joe Biden in 2024.” I fear Americans’ eyes will glaze over at yet another three-letter acronym — not that “liquified natural gas export terminals” is exactly any better. At the very least, other polling appears to indicate a public that is confused and conflicted about fossil fuels, see-sawing between a desire for energy security and anxiety over climate priorities.
Meanwhile, Trump can add LNG to his laundry list of dubious attacks on the energy transition and the “Green New Scam.”
Of course, none of these risks is a reason for the Biden administration not to get to the bottom of LNG’s environmental impacts. The U.S. is, after all, now the largest LNG exporter in the world. But the timing of the Biden administration’s announcement, just as the Republican race took a decisive and seemingly inevitable turn in Trump’s favor, means that one way or another, we’ll be hearing a lot more about LNG in the long, long months to come.