Exporting Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Is Bad For The Climate

The surge in U.S. production of shale gas is creating a surge in permit requests to build liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals. That’s because the glut of U.S. gas has dropped domestic prices sharply below global price levels.

LNG Value ChainBut if avoiding catastrophic climate change is your goal, then spending huge sums on even conventional natural gas infrastructure is not the answer, as a recent International Energy Agency report made clear:

The specific emissions from a gas-fired power plant will be higher than average global CO2 intensity in electricity generation by 2025, raising questions around the long-term viability of some gas infrastructure investment if climate change objectives are to be met.

And liquefying natural gas is an energy intensive and leaky process. When you factor in shipping overseas, you get an energy penalty of 20% or more. The extra greenhouse gas emissions can equal 30% or more of combustion emissions, according to a 2009 Reference Report by the Joint Research Centreof the European Commission, Liquefied Natural Gas for Europe – Some Important Issues for Consideration.

Such extra emissions all but eliminate whatever small, short-term benefit there might be of building billion-dollar export terminals and other LNG infrastructure, which in any case will last many decades, long after the electric grid will not benefit from replacing coal with gas.

Furthermore, the U.S. Energy Information Administration concluded in a 2012 report on natural gas exports done for DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy that such exports would also increase domestic greenhouse gas emissions:

[W]hen also accounting for emissions related to natural gas used in the liquefaction process, additional exports increase CO2 levels under all cases and export scenarios, particularly in the earlier years of the projection period.

Asserting any net benefit for the importer requires assuming the new gas replaces only coal — and isn’t used for, say, natural gas vehicles, which are worse for the climate or that it doesn’t replace new renewables.  If even a modest fraction of the imported LNG displaces renewables, it renders the entire expenditure for LNG counterproductive from day one.

Remember, a major new 2012 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study on “technology warming potentials” (TWPs) found that a big switch from coal to gas would only reduce TWP by about 25% over the first three decades (see “Natural Gas Is A Bridge To Nowhere Absent A Carbon Price AND Strong Standards To Reduce Methane Leakage“). And that is based on “EPA’s latest estimate of the amount of CH4 released because of leaks and venting in the natural gas network between production wells and the local distribution network” of 2.4%. Many experts believe the leakage rate is higher than 2.4%, particularly for shale gas. Also, recent air sampling by NOAA over Colorado found 4% methane leakage, more than double industry claims.

A different 2012 study by climatologist Ken Caldeira and tech guru Nathan Myhrvold finds basically no benefit in the switch whatsoever — see You Can’t Slow Projected Warming With Gas, You Need ‘Rapid and Massive Deployment’ of Zero-Carbon Power.

So spending vast sums of money to export natural gas from this country is a bad idea for the climate.  A new paper published last week by Brooking’s Hamilton Project, “A Strategy for U.S. Natural Gas Exports,” asserts a different conclusion, primarily because it ignores all of the issues discussed above. Indeed, the paper rather amazingly asserts “Natural gas, though, has the same climate consequences whether it is burned in the United States, Europe, or Asia,” which would be true for exported U.S. gas only if we could use magic to take the U.S. shale gas and put it into European or Asian gas-fired power plants. In the real world, it takes a massive amount of energy and greenhouse gas emissions to get gas from here to those markets, as is well known in the climate policy arena.

BOTTOM LINE: Investing billions of dollars in new shale gas infrastructure for domestic use is, at best, of limited value for a short period of time if we put in place both a CO2 price and regulations to minimize methane leakage. Exporting gas vitiates even that limited value and so investing billions in LNG infrastructure is, at best, a waste of resources better utilized for deploying truly low-carbon energy. At worst, it helps accelerates the world past the 2°C warming threshold into Terra incognita — a planet of amplifying feedbacks and multiple simultaneous catastrophic impacts.

17 Responses to Exporting Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Is Bad For The Climate

  1. Spike says:

    Even worse more gas generation abroad will displace planned renewables. The right in the UK are urging a dash for gas instead of current offshore wind plans.

  2. paul magnus says:

    Ahh, some idea where the 2C limit came from… intuition.

    “The 2 degrees C target is an interesting topic in its own right. By now it’s been adopted by the E.U., the UNFCCC, the G8 — pretty much all the major emitters. But where did it come from? According to this paper (PDF), it ultimately traces back to a passing comment in a 1977 paper by, of all people, economist William Nordhaus. (WTF?) It was more or less an intuition on his part about the natural variability of temperature of the last 100,000 years.”

  3. paul magnus says:

    and from an economist!!!

  4. paul magnus says:

    “Limiting global warming to 2° Celsius above global mean temperature in pre-indus- trial times has become a widely debated possible goal for climate policy.

    It has been supported by many scientists, the European Union, the G8 and larger international bodies. However, some claim that it is way too stringent, others that it is not suffici- ent to avoid major climate risks.

    We show how the limit emerged out of a marginal remark in an early paper about climate policy and distinguish three possible views of it.

    The catastrophe view sees it as the threshold separating a domain of safety from a domain of catastrophe.

    The cost-benefit view sees it as a strategy to optimize the relation between the costs and benefits of limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

    And the focal point view sees it as a solution to a complex coordination problem.”

  5. Lou Grinzo says:

    As a quick historical note, I would add that as recently as a few years ago (2007, I think) we were still fretting over the problem of the US not having enough of the right kind of terminal to let us import LNG. There was talk of there being a “natural gas crunch”, etc., because the 4 or 5 working terminals weren’t enough to bring in LNG from overseas, and Canada and Mexico couldn’t supply us as much as we’d need.

    In other words, people making 40- and 50-year infrastructure plans based on the price of natural gas today run a gigantic risk of being caught leaning the wrong way if/when the market pulls another rabbit out of its hat.

  6. paul magnus says:

    “As a first approximation, it seems reasonable to argue that the climatic effects of carbon dioxide should be kept within the normal range of long-term climatic variation. According to most sources the range of variation between distinct climatic regimes is in the order of 5°C, and at the present time the global climate is at the high end of this range. If there were global tempera- tures more than 2 or 3° above the current average temperature, this would take the climate outside of the range of observations which have been made over the last several hundred thousand years” (Nordhaus 1977, p.39-40;

  7. catman306 says:

    Joe, The Wall Street Journal doesn’t agree with you. You’d be writing the wrong things if they did.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Absolutely Spike! The gas push is designed to delay, or even derail entirely, the uptake of renewables. One of the cunningly evil tactics of the Right is to impoverish and immiserate millions, as the Cameron monstrosity is doing with sadistic relish in the UK, then argue against renewable power because it is too expensive for the poor, who they, for once in their lives, pretend to be concerned about. I am constantly surprised these days by just how very, very, nasty the current crop of Rightwingers are. I expected this development, if only from belief in the operation of a perverted type of Darwinian selection process, for the vilest, amongst the Right, and now that it is here I really suspect that there is no outer limit, delineated by conscience or human compassion, for mundane, everyday, Rightwing bastardy.

  9. Alex Gilbert says:

    Hi Joe,

    Senator Udall has pledged to address the senate continuously until the wind PTC is passed. Would be a good lead to follow. His speeches are well informed and to the point.

  10. Paul Klinkman says:

    And one more natural gas issue which doesn’t get talked about: shoals, reefs, rocks, drunken tanker captains and garden-variety terrorists with shoulder-mounted RPGs.

    An LNG tanker is (a) a floating firebomb waiting to take out square kilometers of a city, or (b) a big huge methane greenhouse gas leak waiting to happen.

    The same goes for natural gas wells drilled in shallow water. There’s one runaway well in the North Sea that will just have to bleed out until all of its methane is deposited in the earth’s atmosphere. It’s too dangerous to plug — one spark from one Shell Oil boat trying to fix the leak and there’s no more Shell Oil boat.

  11. Kent O. Doering says:

    Well, at least Europeans can relax, knowing Americans can never compete with the Norwegian north sea gas, Siberian gas over North Stream 1, North ‘Stream 2, North African gas carried by Eguptian L.N.G., Caspian sea and Iranian gas carried by Southstream, and gulf region gas carried by Nabucco.

    Then there is the massive build up of concentrated solar, solar p.v. wind, bio-waste fuel systems and other RE and EE systems.
    Like to which European nations do proponants of exporting U.S shale gas via L.N.G. tankers hope to export? England? Norway? France? the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain? Italy? Russia maybe? Germany?

    The Fracking boom left the U.s. with a shitload of excess gas. China and japan are tapping into Canadian fields in British Columbia, but I don´t see any pipeline projects for carrying other source nat gas to the West Coast.
    Beng familiar with the European, and especially the German energy scene, I fail to see any price advantage in shipping L.N.C. across the atlantic in competition to all the systems I just mentioned above.Goodness gracious, what about upgrading coal plants to gas fired GaS, gas Trubine- Steam tzurbine systems for a start?
    You could replace all your oil and gas heating systems with SMART Grid coordinated CHP units- i.e. either fuel cells with heat recapture, or VW – Lichtblick systems- Gas fired internal combustion engines driving generators, with follow up Stirling motor p.g. on the hot exhausts- before heat transfer. Lots of cleaner base line power and heat right there.
    We in Europe certainly cannot use it as we are getting a glut of nat gas already.

  12. Alejandro Gonzalez says:

    In open access, you can read a scientific work on extreme subsidies of GNL imports, at


  13. Joan Savage says:

    LNG export is a big hypocrisy of the natural gas industry, as the industry woos public opinion with the expectation of ‘cheap gas’ and safe domestic supply, while planning for export that would put both of those expectations topsy-turvy.

    We need sustainable non-GHG energy ASAP,for all the good reasons, plus protection from price flux in a global market.

  14. Mike 22 says:

    Kent has made an important point. Natural gas powered Combined Heat and Power, CHP, units in buildings could reduce CO2 emissions significantly over current systems (i.e. large gas turbines which waste about 50% of the energy, and building heating systems which waste the opportunity to make electricity from gas)

    Add in some heat storage at each building, and a fleet of CHP becomes an efficient way to firm up distributed renewables and meet peaking loads.

    This improves the overall GHG impact of Frack Gas somewhat, and of course, the nat gas pipeline system could be used to move methane made from renewable sources.

    Nice product:

  15. Tami Kennedy says:

    Instead of the US producer argument about lowering national costs they push for profits on global market. Invalidating US industry propaganda regarding economic benefit to consumer.

  16. Paul Klinkman says:

    And I assume that the previous two posts would be the paid industry shill assigned to thinkprogress, writing under two aliases?