Last year, the International Energy Agency declared that capping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) means no new coal, oil, or gas development. The Biden administration, which says it’s committed to capping warming at 1.5 degrees, is behaving as though there were an asterisk on that statement: no new fossil fuel development, except when it serves America’s geopolitical interests.
Last week, the United States became the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, or LNG. The milestone was reached amid Europe’s fuel crisis and the fight around Nord Stream 2—the hulking, now nearly operational pipeline set to funnel a prodigious amount of gas from Russia to Germany. Though members of the Biden administration had been fiercely opposed to the project for fear that it would increase Europe’s reliance on Russian gas, the White House nixed sanctions last May as the pipeline neared completion, opting to make nice with its German counterpart—for whom the pipeline is a major priority amid rising fuel prices—and avoid further tension with Moscow. Now, though, as Russian troops swell on the Ukrainian border as part of the ongoing conflict in east Ukraine, Senator Ted Cruz is holding up confirmation votes on Biden appointees, hoping to force the administration into sanctioning Nord Stream 2 after all. Meanwhile, Biden officials are urging fellow Democrats to vote against Cruz’s sanctions bill, saying that passing it might increase the chances of Russia invading Ukraine. Needless to say, Cruz’s objections to the project aren’t environmental.
“Russian gas” has long been a bête noire for politicians on both sides of the aisle in the U.S. The Obama administration expended considerable resources on its Global Shale Gas Initiative, which aimed to open new export markets (largely in Eastern and Southern Europe) for U.S. fossil fuel producers, capitalizing on the shale boom that followed the Great Recession. Promoting the GSGI was how Vice President Biden got to know Amos Hochstein, then special envoy and coordinator for International Energy Affairs and now the senior adviser for global energy security in Biden’s State Department. Some of Hochsteins’s top concerns in that job were Ukraine and Nord Stream 2. The Obama administration opposed the project, as did Trump, whose energy secretary—Rick Perry—trumpeted LNG exports as a means of spreading “freedom gas” the world over, outcompeting geopolitical foes.
The Biden White House has now picked up this bipartisan freedom gas–burning torch. But it’s also trying to paint it green: Promoting American gas in Europe, the Biden administration claims, is good for the planet.
Signs that the Biden administration is trying to portray new gas development as “clean” have popped up all over the place in the past six months. In August, the Biden administration announced a Strategic Energy and Climate Dialogue to “expand corporate governance reform at state-owned energy companies, increase the attractiveness of Ukraine’s energy industry, and attract the foreign investment needed to achieve energy independence, decarbonization, as well as other clean energy goals.” As part of the same initiative, the White House announced it would “support efforts to increase capacity for gas supplies to Ukraine from diversified sources.”
Looking to have existing resources meet immediate needs is one thing—especially if Russia intends to cut off flows—but high demand in Europe could soon be an excuse to green-light still more fossil fuel infrastructure projects at home and abroad. “American gas exporters such as Cheniere Energy, Inc. stand to rake in bumper earnings from the disconnect” between European demand and supply, The Wall Street Journal reported recently, adding that “exports of chilled gas are running at close to record levels and can’t rise much higher without new liquefaction infrastructure.”
New U.S.-backed fossil fuel infrastructure is already on the table elsewhere in Europe. U.S. Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt recently spoke in support of the “Energizing Greece” project that promises to bring an enormous amount of fossil fuel infrastructure in the Mediterranean. A new GE gas-fired power plant and LNG storage and regasification unit off the coast of Alexandroupoli—a project backed enthusiastically by Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—are now being pitched as the tip of the spear of a clean energy transition. The latter, Pyatt said in a November keynote address for a conference on the initiative, “will increase supplies of cleaner LNG, much of which we hope will be sourced from the United States, for a wider region that includes Greece, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Serbia. All of these countries will need stable, secure supplies of natural gas to decommission dirty energy sources like coal-fired power plants.” At a geopolitical level, the idea seems to be that this new gas infrastructure will fight back against both Russian gas and Chinese investment in the Balkans.
Biden has his own history supporting fossil fuels in the region. During a 2014 trip to Cyprus, he waxed poetic about “transforming the eastern Mediterranean into a new global hub for natural gas.” Hochstein, his companion on such trips, took a job at the LNG export company Tellurian after leaving the Obama administration. He served as an executive at Tellurian as it sought to develop the Alexandroupoli LNG terminal, telling the House Foreign Affairs Joint Subcommittee in 2016 that the Eastern Mediterranean could “play a role in freeing central and southeast Europe from their overwhelming dependence on Russian gas.” While at Tellurian he also spoke on a panel in Alexandroupoli specifically about new interconnections and terminals in Southeastern Europe and “trading prospects” for gas and LNG. Now that the Alexandroupoli LNG terminal is nearing completion, it looks like much of the gas flowing to the terminal may come from Cheniere, a mammoth U.S.-based LNG exporter to which numerous Biden campaign allies have had ties.
Gas is an environmental disaster. When burned, it emits about half the carbon of coal. But the gas supply chain is riddled with methane leaks and routine flaring. And as a greenhouse gas, methane is roughly 85 times as potent as carbon dioxide over the next 20 years. High, largely unaccounted for methane emissions from U.S. gas production could even be canceling out the alleged benefit from switching to gas from coal; as of 2019, surging methane gas use worldwide had eclipsed the emissions reductions from declining coal use. The continued boom of oil and gas development in the Permian Basin in the American Southwest alone—much of it bound for Europe and Asia—would burn through nearly 10 percent of the entire world’s remaining carbon budget by 2050. Though gas has been pitched as a “bridge fuel,” development of the sort pitched by U.S. officials in the Mediterranean would lock in greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come.
There’s no way to square the Biden administration’s enthusiasm for U.S. gas exports with the spirit of its numerous pledges to end support for fossil fuels overseas—unless, of course, you look at the loopholes that were baked into those pledges. Besides leaving room for so-called green LNG, these pledges largely exempt any projects where there are “national security implications or severe energy access concerns.” In December, several outlets reported Biden had ordered U.S. government agencies to stop financing fossil fuels overseas. But there was a caveat for “rare cases where there are compelling national security, geostrategic, or development/energy access benefits and no viable lower carbon alternatives accomplish the same goals.” And the order didn’t seem to include softer diplomatic support offered to fossil fuels through efforts like the Global Shale Gas Initiative. It’s not the only time so-called national security interests have trumped the White House’s climate priorities in recent months: The military—the world’s largest institutional fossil fuel consumer—is excluded from Biden’s executive order to cut federal government emissions.
Like many before it, the Biden administration has had to decide what constitutes a crisis worthy of exceptional action. It’s clear now that the Biden administration thinks high gas prices and geopolitical rivalries are action-worthy crises. But for now, rising temperatures don’t seem to be on that list.