The Biden Administration’s Next Big Climate Decision


Earlier this year, the Biden Administration approved the Willow Project, a huge oil-drilling complex to be built in Alaska on thawing permafrost that may need to be mechanically refrozen before it can be drilled. Not surprisingly, Willow drew opposition—more than five million people, many of them young, signed petitions against the plan, and a million sent letters to the White House—which, the Times noted last month, could become “a wild card factor in next year’s presidential race.”

But the Willow field is not the only major fossil-fuel project in the works. Soon, you may also be hearing a good deal about C.P.2, or Calcasieu Pass 2, an enormous liquefied-natural-gas export terminal that’s been proposed for the Louisiana coast, and which the Biden Administration is likely to approve or reject this fall. The project, the largest of at least twenty L.N.G. terminals proposed by a handful of companies to take gas mostly from the Southwest’s Permian Basin to overseas customers, is a poster child for late-stage petrocapitalism: it would help lock in the planet’s reliance on fossil fuels long past what scientists have identified as the breaking point for the climate system. And it will bring to the fore one of the most crucial—and least-discussed—parts of the climate fight: America’s rapidly increasing exports of oil and gas to the rest of the world. To give an idea of how big the battle at C.P.2 could turn out to be: according to the veteran energy analyst Jeremy Symons, the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with it would be twenty times larger than those from the oil drilling at Willow.

The Calcasieu Ship Channel is a sixty-eight-mile-long waterway, dating to the eighteen-seventies, which the Army Corps of Engineers subsequently dredged to provide deep-water access from the Gulf of Mexico thirty miles north, to the city of Lake Charles—now the twelfth-largest port in the United States. The channel is strategically situated not just because ships can easily reach it from the Gulf of Mexico but because pipelines can easily reach it from the Permian Basin. Venture Global, a Virginia-based company bidding to become the country’s leading natural-gas exporter, has already built one big L.N.G. terminal, Calcasieu Pass 1, known as C.P.1, on the channel, in Cameron Parish, and is building another in Plaquemines Parish, twenty miles south of New Orleans, where the Gulf meets the Mississippi. Now Venture Global has applied for permits to build C.P.2, a larger facility adjacent to C.P.1, which would allow the export of twenty million metric tons of L.N.G. annually. Seven terminals are already up and running in that stretch of the Louisiana coast and in neighboring parts of Texas, such as Port Arthur.

It’s the greatest L.N.G. boom in history, a feat that is all the more remarkable given that U.S. oil-and-gas exports were essentially nil before 2016, when, just days after the Paris climate negotiations ended, congressional Democrats agreed to end the forty-year ban on selling American oil abroad in exchange for extending solar- and wind-energy-industry tax credits in an omnibus spending bill. The first large-scale L.N.G. exports began in 2016; Vladimir Putin provided a rationale for backing increased exports when he launched his attack on Ukraine in 2022 and turned down the gas tap for Europe. The U.S. and others met the challenge, exporting fifty-six billion cubic metres to the European Union last year; the Biden Administration has promised another fifty billion this winter. Projects like C.P.2, though, won’t be done for at least three years, by which time the geopolitical reasoning will presumably have faded, but the infrastructure will linger for decades. The U.S. has now surpassed Russia and Qatar to become the single largest exporter of L.N.G. in the world.

And that’s just the beginning. A new report published last week (I helped present the data at a press conference) showed that more than a third of increases in oil and gas production between now and 2035 is slated to come from the U.S. alone—the authors, who work for the research and advocacy group Oil Change International, based in Washington, D.C., said that this will make the United States the “Planet Wrecker in Chief.” If that sounds odd, given the level of climate action under way since the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, in the summer of 2022, you need to consider the artificial distinction that the world draws between domestic and foreign emissions. It’s a kind of math problem, though not a very hard one.

President Biden has said that he will cut U.S. emissions in half from 2005 levels by 2030; the huge investments in electric vehicles, wind turbines, and the like under the I.R.A. should accomplish a significant fraction of that task. But, at the same time, the Administration has overseen the continued ramp-up of fossil-fuel exports. (Venture Global alone is planning to produce a hundred million metric tons of L.N.G. a year.) The emissions from all that gas don’t officially “count” against the U.S.’s total, because it will be burned elsewhere, and under rules set by the United Nations the country of combustion, not production, is on the hook for it. But the atmosphere doesn’t care where fossil fuel is burned; the resulting carbon dioxide mixes quickly into the atmosphere and raises temperatures everywhere. And, if those emissions are added “into our footprint,” the analyst Jeremy Symons told me recently, “our total emissions in 2030 will be roughly the same as in 2005.” The rules constitute, he said, “the greatest shell game in the history of the world. We’re so focussed on domestic emissions that we’ve missed entirely what’s going on with exports.”

Venture Global declined to comment for this piece, but it has said that, in fact, it is cleaning up the world’s energy system, because “with lower cost L.N.G., more global, growing economies will realize the environmental benefits of clean-burning natural gas.” That is, if developing economies don’t get L.N.G., they might burn coal instead. So far, the Biden Administration has gone along with this reasoning. The Department of Energy has to grant an export license before gas from the proposed C.P.2 terminal can be marketed beyond the small list of countries with which the United States has a free-trade agreement. But, to weigh such a decision, the department is still using a Trump-era analysis that simply compares burning natural gas with, say, burning coal, and concludes that the gas will have less impact on the climate. This may or may not be true—D.O.E. officials have avoided a realistic analysis of how much heat-trapping methane is leaked during the fracking process. But, either way, it’s beside the point, because the world, in theory, is no longer aiming for incremental shifts such as moving from coal to gas.

As the climate crisis has deepened, first scientists and then diplomats have understood that the necessary target is “net zero,” which is why, in 2021, the International Energy Agency declared that, beginning that year, all new investment in fossil-fuel infrastructure should cease. “The pathway to net zero is narrow but still achievable,” the I.E.A.’s Fatih Birol explained. “If we want to reach net zero by 2050 we do not need any more investments in new oil, gas and coal projects.” That, clearly, means that we shouldn’t build any new L.N.G. export terminals and that, instead of exporting natural gas, we should be exporting—and helping to pay for—solar farms and wind turbines that can help get us somewhere nearer net zero. As Scientific American reported, the Gulf Coast state of Texas was able to keep its power grid running through this summer’s heat wave precisely because it had built so much solar power and battery capacity.


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