DeSmog

A Research Duel Heats up Amid High-Stakes Decision on LNG Exports

As groups try to influence a federal decision, Louisiana fishers squeezed by current LNG exports call for an end to expansion.
Sara Sneath sitting under a picnic shelter
Sara Sneath sitting under a picnic shelter
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Travis Dardar is wearing a gray hoodie that says "D&C Seafood" and an LSU baseball cap, standing beside a boat with a sign that says, "Environmental Justice Now: Southwest Louisiana Better Together"
Indigenous fisherman Travis Dardar stands with a group of fishermen from Cameron, Louisiana, part of a coalition of environmental groups protesting the expansion of LNG exports from the Gulf Coast. Credit: Julie Dermansky

Industry and academic groups have launched a research arms race to influence the U.S. Department of Energy’s decision about whether more liquified natural gas exports are in the public interest.

In late January, President Joe Biden announced that the agency would temporarily stop processing pending applications to export LNG to countries that don’t have a trade agreement with the U.S., which includes the majority of countries importing U.S. LNG. That pause will lift when the Energy Department updates the climate and economic analysis underpinning its export authorizations. 

This has not interrupted the seven LNG export terminals currently operating in the U.S. or the eight under construction. But the move could result in a decision limiting more LNG exports in a country that’s already the world’s top LNG exporter — and groups see an opening to sway minds.

“There is always a concern that DOE would be influenced by an industry-funded report. That is the very nature of the government’s relationship with the fossil fuel industry, which has a long history of producing misleading and inaccurate information,” said Robin Saha, director of the environmental studies program at the University of Montana and a co-author of a May impact assessment of the LNG buildout in Louisiana and Texas. “It is vital that the DOE also engage and include the data provided by communities living closest to the LNG facilities in operation to provide a comprehensive analysis.” 

Local fishers and environmental advocacy groups have warned that the LNG export pause didn’t go far enough in addressing concerns raised by Gulf Coast residents. They’re calling for the Biden administration to ban further expansion of the industry. 

“We’ve seen the destruction just one of these plants has. So for it to be in the public interest to build the other ones is just a ridiculous notion,” said Cameron Parish fisherman Travis Dardar, who wasn’t involved in the research. Dardar has assembled a coalition of fishermen to push back against the LNG export buildout in south Louisiana. “We’re fighting this because we have nothing left to lose. They’ve taken everything from us. They’ve taken basically all the docks.”

The impact assessment Saha co-authored with academics at the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University found that the LNG buildout disproportionately harms low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. The industry contributes to climate change and has the potential to inflate U.S. electricity prices; people living near these facilities face air pollution on top of that, the study concluded. The Center is submitting the report to the Energy Department, said co-author Liza T. Powers, a postdoctoral fellow at the Bullard Center. 

“To date, the licensing and application process for LNG facilities have failed to acknowledge or address environmental and climate justice issues,” she said. “We argue that taking into account the cumulative impacts, including climate impact of LNG, leads to the conclusion that LNG does not serve the public interest.”

The Biden administration’s pause on LNG export project approvals was initiated after a study by Cornell University professor Robert Warren Howarth found LNG exports could be worse for the planet than coal. A revised version of that study is undergoing peer review.

LNG export companies are pushing back on Howarth’s findings. A study funded by exporter lobbying group LNG Allies and published in April by the consulting firm Berkeley Research Group concluded that U.S. LNG produces less than half the emissions from coal when used for electricity in Europe and Asia, and about 20% less emissions than gas coming from Russia.

“I think industry got the result they paid for,” Howarth told DeSmog after reviewing that report. The industry-funded study does not provide the specific data sources used to calculate methane emissions from drilling, fracking, flaring, processing, and transporting natural gas, Howarth pointed out. 

“The upstream emissions are a big part of the total in my analysis. If we correct their analysis for having low-balled these emissions, then we are not that far off,” he said.

The infrastructure of the LNG terminal, with storage facilities and docks, is shown alongside the water. A small boat is passing by.
Venture Global’s Calcasieu Pass LNG export terminal is pictured in 2021 while under construction. Credit: Julie Dermansky

For his study, Howarth estimated the methane leak rate for gas production with data from a 2024 analysis of nearly one million observations taken by aircraft. The Berkeley Research Group report claims that studies like Howarth’s rely on “theoretical emissions of natural gas.” But Howarth countered that peer-reviewed science based on real-life observations is more reliable than unverified industry reporting of methane emissions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which it appears the industry-funded report relied on. That study said it used emissions numbers reported to EPA but did not specify which ones. 

Berkeley Research Group did not respond to questions about its study. LNG Allies did not respond to requests for comment.

In March, 16 states filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration, arguing that the pause on processing LNG export applications is unlawful and “upends the industry.” The suit is led by Louisiana Attorney General Liz Murrill.

Jeremy Symons, principal of Symons Public Affairs, which helps nonprofit clients address climate change, sees the timing of the Berkeley Research Group report as a sign that LNG Allies is trying to influence the Energy Department’s public interest analysis too. “It’s not surprising to me that the industry is putting its preferred case forward. And this won’t be the last of that. I’m sure they have a number of projects underway,” he told DeSmog. Symons authored a report in 2023 that found that greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. LNG exports, if all proposals were approved, would outpace total greenhouse gas emissions from the European Union.

U.S. LNG gas exports doubled between 2019 and 2023. Most of the LNG facilities the Bullard Center examined in Louisiana and Texas are surrounded by communities with already high air pollution exposure and higher rates of asthma than the national average, making them more susceptible to LNG air pollution.

The Energy Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment. While testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this month, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said she recommended the pause to Biden because of the explosive growth in LNG exports. She estimated that the agency study underway should be wrapped up by the end of the year or the beginning of next year.

“I understand that some in the industry who may have pending authorization requests are not happy,” Granholm said. “But our review is in the public interest, and not in the interest just of the oil and gas industry.”

Dardar, the Louisiana fisherman, is eager for a true ban on gas exports to kick in. “If you ride down to Cameron, you can see what their pause looks like. Their plants are still going. New plants are moving in,” Dardar said. “It hardly looks like a pause to me.”

Sara Sneath sitting under a picnic shelter
Sara Sneath is an investigative climate reporter and fact checker based in New Orleans. She has reported on energy in the Gulf South for 10 years, including for such outlets as The Washington Post, ProPublica, and The Guardian.

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