On a marshy stretch of the Louisiana coastline, a little-known company wants to build a $10 billion facility that would allow the United States to export vast stores of liquefied natural gas.
Supporters of the project, known as CP2, say the export terminal would be a boon for the United States economy and help Europe decrease its reliance on gas imported from Russia. They also claim that because burning natural gas produces fewer planet-warming emissions than burning coal, the project is a good thing for the climate.
But a nationwide movement is working to stop the export terminal from ever being built.
Opponents, including major environmental groups, scientists and activists, say that CP2 would lock in decades of additional greenhouse gas emissions, the main driver of climate change. They add that the project would be harmful to the people who live in the area, as well as the fragile ecosystem that supports aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico.
It will be up to the Biden administration to decide whether or not the project moves forward.
In the coming months, the Energy Department is expected to rule on whether the export terminal is in the “public interest,” a subjective determination that could have far-reaching consequences for the country’s natural gas industry.
The decision forces the Biden administration to confront a central contradiction within its energy policies: It wants nations to stop burning the fossil fuels that are dangerously heating the planet and has heralded a global agreement reached in Dubai earlier this month to transition away from fossil fuels. But at the same time, the United States is producing record amounts of crude oil, is the leading exporter of liquefied natural gas and may approve an additional 17 export facilities, including CP2.
As President Biden seeks re-election, the politics are complicated.
He has made climate action central to his presidency and he needs young climate voters to turn out. But he is also trying to keep gas prices from rising, wants to supply European allies with a replacement for Russian gas and must fend off Republican accusations that he is hampering American energy development.
In interviews, members of the Biden administration said they were trying to thwart climate change, but also acknowledged the many strategic complexities in play. Ali Zaidi, Mr. Biden’s national climate adviser, declined to say whether the administration supported an expansion of liquefied natural gas exports.
“We need to, as part of our overall climate approach, transition globally away from fossil fuels,” he said when asked whether approving new natural gas export facilities undermined the administration’s climate goals. “And we continue to be diligent about ways to grow the economy, to strengthen our energy security, to boost U.S. manufacturing, create jobs and meet that climate imperative.”
To environmental groups, the conflict is clear.
“There is increasing public recognition that this project and others stand as the biggest new carbon sources in the world, and this is in the wake of an iconic global agreement that it is time to transition away from fossil fuels,” said Manish Bapna, chief executive of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This disconnect is capturing the public’s imagination and outrage.”
At the center of the debate is Calcasieu Pass 2, a proposed export terminal that would be situated along a shipping channel that connects the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Charles, La. The company behind the project, Venture Global LNG, is a Virginia-based start-up with two other new Louisiana facilities, one of which is completed but is not yet fully operational.
The export terminals represent the culmination of America’s decades-long boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Starting on a major scale 20 years ago, new methods unlocked huge reserves of natural gas, transforming the country’s energy landscape.
Starting in 2016, the United States began exporting liquefied natural gas, or L.N.G., and this year became the biggest exporter in the world. Several new terminals are under construction, and even without CP2, exports are poised to grow by more than 50 percent in the years ahead.
The exports have given Washington new leverage on the world stage, allowing the Biden administration to impose sanctions on a new Russian Arctic gas project without threatening to raise global energy prices and to help power Europe as it weans itself from Russian gas.
Proponents of CP2 are quick to point out its strategic benefits. In a letter to American regulators urging the approval of the project, a state-owned German gas company said the proposed facility was “vital for Germany’s energy security in the new environment, where gas pipeline supplies from Russia have stopped.”
They warn that an escalation of hostilities in the Middle East could threaten transit through the Strait of Hormuz, the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean, where nearly a quarter of the global natural gas supplies flow, making such projects all the more important.
“You’re going to have every ambassador in Washington from countries that rely on American L.N.G. making the case,” said Charif Souki, the founder of Cheniere, the first major liquefied natural gas export company.
Natural gas, which is primarily composed of methane, is cleaner than coal when it is burned.
Michael Sabel, the chief executive of Venture Global LNG, said in an interview that natural gas was “the greatest tool the world currently possesses to combat climate change.”
But while natural gas burns cleaner than coal, methane emissions are 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over the first 20 years in the atmosphere. And although methane dissipates more rapidly than other greenhouse gases, it can leak anywhere along the supply chain, from the production wellhead to processing plants to the stovetop. The process of liquefying gas to make it suitable for transport is incredibly energy intensive as well, creating yet more emissions.
A new analysis by Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell, concluded that the emissions associated with exporting natural gas could be 24 percent to 274 percent greater than those associated with burning coal. Citing that study, which has not yet been published in a scientific journal, some activists claim that approving CP2 would result in emissions 20 times greater than those associated with the Willow project, a major new oil drilling development in Alaska that the Biden administration approved this year despite an outcry from environmentalists.
Mr. Howarth’s analysis is the latest in a growing body of research that has found that natural gas can be just as damaging as coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, in terms of climate impacts.
Gas executives and some other experts say that Mr. Howarth’s claims are exaggerated. “Maybe you can find a case where the use of L.N.G. is terrible with methane emissions or where an L.N.G. facility could be worse than coal,” Mr. Souki said. “But that’s the exception, not the rule.”
Since early September, activists have lit up TikTok and Instagram, delivered petitions to the Biden administration and met directly with senior White House climate officials to urge Mr. Biden to reject CP2. Jane Fonda recorded a video for Greenpeace calling on the public to work against the project.
“We have enough gas and export terminals to supply everything in the world right now,” said Naomi Yoder, a staff scientist at Healthy Gulf, one of many local groups working to stop the construction of new natural gas infrastructure in the area. “There is no need for additional facilities.”
The same activists were enraged at Mr. Biden this year after he approved the Willow project. But this time, they are hoping to bring another fossil fuel fight to the front steps of the White House and receive a different result.
“The scale of this, it’s the single biggest remaining fossil fuel expansion on planet Earth,” said Bill McKibben, an environmental activist who is leading a campaign to block CP2.
Some Congressional Democrats are also calling on the Biden administration to stop rubber-stamping new fossil fuel projects.
“America is drunk on oil and gas production and exports,” Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said this month after global leaders at the United Nations climate summit agreed to transition away from coal, oil and gas, calling on the administration to “end approvals of new infrastructure for fossil fuels.”
And Democratic members from the House and Senate last month called on the administration to rethink the way it approves natural gas projects, taking into account all of the emissions associated with the industry.
Momentum continued to build this month, as a group of more than 170 scientists called on the administration to block CP2.
“Young people are right to raise their voices,” Mr. Zaidi said. “We hear these concerns and share them. President Biden’s climate agenda isn’t just massively ambitious, it’s ever-accelerating — moving faster and faster to meet the moment and transition away from fossil fuels.”
CP2 is still awaiting several approvals, including air and water permits from the state of Louisiana, a blessing from the Army Corps of Engineers, and a pair of critical federal sign offs. The most consequential of those, and the one that activists believe they have the best chance of blocking, is the Energy Department’s decision about whether the project is in the public interest.
One factor in that determination is an evaluation of the fossil fuel emissions associated with building the terminal.
The Energy Department has never rejected a proposed natural gas project because of its projected environmental impact. But activists are petitioning the Biden administration to use a new methodology to calculate what they call the “full life cycle” of planet-warming emissions associated with building and operating the terminal, taking into account, for example, how much methane leaks when the natural gas is extracted and transported to the terminal, and the emissions associated with shipping the gas.
Should the Energy Department use such a framework to make its assessment and decide against approving CP2, activists see an opportunity for a far broader victory than simply killing one infrastructure project. Such a ruling, they say, could effectively end all new plans to export the United States’ natural gas, including 20 other similar terminals that are lined up waiting for approval.
“An expansion of L.N.G. exports is completely at odds with the climate goals that this country has set out, and is totally inconsistent with the signals coming out of Dubai,” Mr. Bapna of the Natural Resources Defense Council said. “The U.S. signed an agreement about the need to transition away from fossil fuels, and now the U.S. needs to demonstrate leadership.”
Lisa Friedman and Brad Plumer contributed reporting.