The US has widely adopted hydraulic fracturing (fracking) which has domestically led to cheap natural gas. Since natural gas is 2.5 to 3 times more expensive worldwide, many expect that exporting natural gas could benefit both the US and other countries. However transporting natural gas is more difficult than oil. Companies need either pipelines or liquid natural gas (LNG) facilities/tankers to economically transport it.
LNG facilities compress and cool natural gas to its liquid state (124 kPa, -162 degrees C). This allows for ocean tankers to hold 600 times as much natural gas for a given volume. While it might seem energy intensive to make natural gas that cold, keep it cold, and transport it thousands of kilometers, most GHG emissions (90%) still come from extraction and combustion.
There have been several proposed export terminals throughout the US, but two in Oregon. One in Coos Bay and another in Warrenton. While there are many other pros and cons, I want to highlight a few important ones.
A recent study has found that natural gas exports could reduce GHG emissions. The authors assume that LNG could be used to replace coal in Asia or Russian natural gas in Europe. In both cases, there is a net reduction in total GHG emissions. This essentially supports the “bridge fuel” argument. It says that natural gas can serve as a fuel as we transition from coal to low-carbon technologies for electricity production.
However, natural gas can be used in other ways such as plastic production or home heating. These activities have less clear benefits. Also, US exports could lead to increased domestic fracking and even increased domestic coal consumption as natural gas prices increase. In addition, another study has shown that natural gas as a “bridge fuel” could increase electricity consumption, increase methane emissions, and/or delay investment in truly low-carbon technologies.
Domestically, a few jobs would be created. Some US companies would prefer to keep cheap natural gas prices to themselves, but LNG exports would certainly boost world economic output. Exports could provide Asian markets with cleaner-than-coal cheap electricity. It is important to acknowledge that the US and Europe grew wealthy by exploiting fossil fuels and that we don’t have the right to demand that poorer countries abandon fossil fuels immediately.
Other environmental impacts
As new pipeline must be laid to get natural gas to the export facility, significant impacts could occur. Construction and maintenance of the pipeline would necessitate a clear swath through forests (public and private) and construction that may temporarily disrupt waterways.
We should immediately work to reduce fossil fuel consumption; we can afford the extra costs and we are responsible for most of the current climate change. Ultimately we need an effective carbon tax. This is necessary to address climate change and could displace other taxes. It would still allow for exports when it makes sense for all parties. We’ve recognized that fossil fuels are a problem and ways to mitigate their use. We now need the political will to implement these solutions.
- Portland propane terminal pros and cons (environmental emphasis)
- US LNG export pros and cons (economic emphasis)