Fight Over Gas Fracking Moves to the Coasts

Proposed LNG export terminals are the newest front in the battle over the US’s energy future

There is no natural gas fracking occurring in Maryland – the state has a moratorium on the practice – but Mike Tidwell and his Takoma Park-based Chesapeake Climate Action Network have found themselves in the midst of a major gas-related political battle. “We need to reach a point where we can leave the lights on without torching, combusting, and exploding things,” Tidwell told me recently. Nor is there any gas drilling happening in New Jersey. But campaigners at the Jersey group Clean Ocean Action are also busy these days trying to keep the gas industry at bay. “We are worried about increased gas extraction,” Sean Dixon, an attorney with the organization, says.

map and legend showing potential locations of LNG export terminals in the USAFederal Energy Regulatory Commission

Dixon’s and Tidwell’s worries stem from plans to construct massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities in their home states. With gas prices at an all-time low due to the boom in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, energy companies are clamoring to build new terminals or retrofit old ones so they can sell their gas abroad. Federal regulators at the Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are considering more than 20 applications to build LNG export facilities. Environmental organizations, sometimes joined by major businesses, are pushing back, arguing that new exports and increased gas production are not in the nation’s interest.

The battle over fracking – once confined to shale gas fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arkansas, and other production states – has been joined by people on the coasts who might never have seen a drilling pad.

As recently as 2008, energy companies were working to build LNG terminals to import gas into the United States. Then the fracking boom completely changed the calculus of the energy markets. Now fossil fuel companies – sitting on glut of cheap gas – say that exporting gas is crucial to their profitability. “If we wait to long … we will lose the jobs,” Octavio Simoes warned a Senate panel at a hearing in May.

The industry complains that it is taking DOE far too long to process applications, and has threatened legal action to speed up the queue. Some LNG applications filed two years ago are still awaiting a response. So far the feds have approved two new gas export facilities – both in fossil-fuel friendly Louisiana. The lengthy review process is mostly due to the requirements of The Natural Gas Act of 1938, which compels federal regulators to evaluate whether gas exports will serve the public interest.

As you would imagine, enviros say sending gas abroad won’t serve the nation’s interests. Deb Nardone, the director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Gas campaign, told me: “When we are talking about 24 export facilities, we would be exporting as much gas as we use in the electricity sector every day, and half of what we produce on a daily basis. Even if we allowed just a small amount of exports to occur – three or four facilities – we would still see in an increase in about 20 percent more gas being produced. And that would mean a whole lot more fracking.”

Here’s where it gets interesting: electric utilities and some manufacturers that rely on gas a feedstock are also skeptical of boosting gas exports because it would cut into their profits. Proving the old axiom that politics makes strange bedfellows, corporate giants like Duke Energy and Dow Chemical are on the record expressing strong reservations about the drive to export gas. “Placing this risk on domestic consumers is not acceptable public policy when indeed it can be avoided,” Paul Cicio of the Industrial Energy Consumers of America told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “Once an export terminal is approved, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.”

Arctic Lady, LNG queen 2170Arctic Lady, LNG queen 2170 by Yukon White Light, on Flickr

Much like the debate over increasing coal exports to East Asia, the gas export controversy has tapped into a vein of economic nationalism that transcends traditional political affiliations. In Coos Bay, Oregon, for example, a fight against the proposed Jordan Bay Cove Energy project and related gas lines has united grassroots greens and more conservative residents. “This is to export this gas to another country,” Oregon rancher Bill Gow recently told NPR. “We’re taking a resource that is valuable to our economy – we could create jobs in this country with – and we’re shipping it overseas.”

As oilman T. Boone Pickens put it in a scathing letter published last year in USA Today: “We will go down as the dumbest generation ever if we export our clean, cheap, abundant supplies of natural gas in favor of dirtier, more expensive OPEC oil. Why let our foreign competitors take advantage of our cheap energy?”

While they hammer away with the argument that gas exports will be bad news for the US economy, greens are also working to point out the environmental and public health risks of energy exports.

Community safety is a big issue. In 2004, an LNG plant in Algeria exploded, killing 30 people and injuring 70 more. And in 2010 a gas line in San Bruno, CA erupted, killing 10 people and destroying 38 homes. Some residents who live near the proposed LNG plants fear similar deadly accidents if something were to go wrong. “We are relying on pretty old and antiquated pipelines,” says the Sierra Club’s Nardone. “When we’re talking about safety, we’re talking about moving high pressure gas through some very old systems.”

Environmentalists also say that making new investments in gas exports (each of the LNG plants will cost billions of dollars) will only lock us in further to the fossil fuel infrastructure and add to greenhouse gas emissions. Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s Mike Tidwell says that, if built, Dominion’s Cove Point LNG facility will be one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in Maryland, and yet won’t contribute a single electron to the state’s electricity grid. That’s because it takes vast amounts of energy to compress natural gas into a liquid form suitable for ocean transport. “The energy-intensive procedures at this proposed export facility will make this the fourth largest [greenhouse gas] polluter in Maryland,” Tidwell told me. “We will have this new greenhouse gas source, and it will do nothing to increase our energy supply.”

(For the record, there is a, rather tortured, environmental case for gas exports. An attorney who works in the carbon markets, and spoke off the record, explained it this way: Gas exports to places like South Korea or India will displace coal burning there, helping to lower global greenhouse gas emissions. And because the exports will lead to an increase in North American gas prices, they will make renewables like solar and wind more economically competitive. Higher gas prices are a necessity for making renewable energy financially attractive, the attorney said. Tidwell, for one, doesn’t buy it. He said, “Our response is: We need to leave the fossil fuels in the ground.)

Probably the biggest criticism of the proposed gas exports centers on the likely upstream effects: By creating new outlets for North American gas, the LNG terminals will create new economic incentives for increased drilling. “If this export facility is built, it is going to trigger a real gold rush for fracking,” Tidwell says. “We haven’t seen anything yet. Look at Pennsylvania. There have been 7,000 wells drilled in Pennsylvania, and as a result Pennsylvania is considered the poster child of how bad the impacts of fracking can be: the water contamination, the deforestation, the road closures due to drilling activity. And yet they are proposing by the end of this decade that there could be up to 100,000 wells. Imagine what 100,000 wells will look like. If this export facility is built, there will be enormous pressure to frack every basin in the country.”

The Sierra Club’s Deb Nardone doesn’t have to imagine. She lives in rural Pennsylvania, about 15 miles away from the town of State College, and she has already witnessed the impacts of gas drilling. “I live in Central Pennsylvania, and I can tell you that it’s the wild, wild West here. I don’t wish that on any community.”

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