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LNG terminals could become emissions battlegrounds like coal plants, study warns

A study claiming that U.S. LNG exports could have large impacts on greenhouse gas emissions warned that future liquefaction and export terminals could become something akin to today's coal plants, "where entrenched interests fight meaningful action to reduce climate emissions."

The study, released Dec. 15, took aim at claims that North American gas is slashing emissions by displacing coal in countries such as China. Researchers Alexander Gilbert and Benjamin Sovacool said the climate impacts of U.S. exports to China, Japan, India and South Korea could vary "tremendously," though "emissions are not likely to decrease and may increase significantly due to greater global energy consumption, higher emissions in the U.S., and methane leakage."

Gilbert said in an interview that the U.S. Department of Energy's review of applications to export LNG is not adequate to justify "decades-long" investments in liquefaction and export terminals. To fully analyze the potential greenhouse gas implications from increased U.S. LNG exports, regulators must look beyond U.S. borders to how that gas is being used in importing countries, he said. Because LNG export terminals are massive undertakings representing multiple billions of dollars, Gilbert said, retroactively addressing the climate impacts from gas abroad will be "very difficult."

That could leave LNG exporters fighting a battle that some coal-fired power generators are caught in today.

"There isn't really a set export authority to look over these things once they start operating," Gilbert said. "The way things are going right now — 10 Bcf per day of [export capacity] by 2020? That's a lot of natural gas." Gilbert co-founded SparkLibrary, an energy research platform, and Sovacool is director of the Danish Center for Energy Technology and a professor at Britain's University of Sussex. Their article, "US liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports: Boom or bust for the global climate?" was published Dec. 15 by the journal Energy.

Charlie Riedl, executive director of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, called the study an "outlier to the countless other studies which have found that over their life cycle natural gas and LNG produce less CO2 emissions than coal." He took issue with the wide range of potential emissions identified in the study, which cited annual global life-cycle emission impacts ranging from a drop of 32 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent per Bcf/d to an increase of 63 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent per Bcf/d.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is tasked with permitting the terminals that cool natural gas into a liquid for export, and the DOE issues licenses to export LNG. Shipments to countries with which the U.S. has a free trade agreement are considered automatic, while those to non-FTA countries must be deemed to be in the public interest.

Both agencies have scored court victories after environmental groups including the Sierra Club argued that regulators' review of LNG exports and the terminals that facilitate them should consider the indirect impacts of increased shipments of gas overseas. Gilbert said he expects those petitioners to now "circuit-shop" to try to find the court they will have the best chance in.

The U.S. decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change will also alter how LNG exports affect greenhouse gas emissions, the study said. "If you're looking at a fossil-exporting country in a world completely controlled by a climate agreement, you wouldn't really worry about this issue, because economics would find the best way to meet demands with greenhouse gas constraints," Gilbert said. "But the U.S. proposing to withdraw undermines the agreement in a very significant way."

Gilbert said their study ultimately points to the need for more research into quantifying the climate impacts of LNG exports.

"If you want to be a major exporter, let's do it," he said. "But let's do it with our eyes wide open."