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How one methane scientist influenced Biden's pause on LNG approvals

Aaron Clark, Bloomberg News on

Published in Science & Technology News

When the Biden administration paused approval of new liquefied natural gas export licenses in January, the decision was driven by a recognition that the climate impact from the fossil fuel needs to be reassessed.

The fight over just how much LNG contributes to global warming was rekindled in part by a study with explosive findings. Compiled by Robert Warren Howarth, a professor at Cornell University, the analysis — which was released in October but remains in peer review — uses leak and emissions data from an array of sources. It finds that total greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. LNG in the best case scenario are comparable to coal. In the worst case, emissions could be more than two-fold greater.

Understanding how much of the potent greenhouse gas escapes from the giant intercontinental network of wells, pipelines and ships is now one of the central questions of the energy transition and an emerging climate battleground. Despite years of research, many scientists and the Biden administration believe that question hasn’t been sufficiently answered.

The argument that LNG, which generates about half the carbon dioxide of coal when combusted, is relatively less damaging to the climate hinges on an important caveat. To have a lower warming impact than coal, only a minuscule amount of methane — the primary component of fossil gas — can leak as it moves through vast global supply chains that often begin at wellheads in the scrublands of Texas and Oklahoma and span thousands of miles across oceans, to furnaces and power stations in cities from Shanghai to Hamburg.

But there are also opportunity costs that are less binary. Are U.S. LNG shipments displacing coal generation or channeling money and resources that could have been gone toward clean energy projects? The context of alternatives, many scientists argue, also matters.

Howarth’s study “clearly was a factor in the Biden administration’s decision to pause making the required determinations required for approval of new LNG export projects and launching a U.S. Department of Energy study of the climate impact of LNG exports,” said Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund who has served as a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

 

The findings were troubling because they suggested that leaking and intentionally emitted methane is having a much larger climate impact than previously understood. A White House spokesman didn’t respond to requests for comment. Five scientists including Hamburg declined to comment on the paper's findings because it hasn't yet completed peer review.

Methane is up to 80 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year period, but its warming power falls to around 30 times more than CO2 over 100 years as it degrades. Howarth firmly believes the shorter timeframe more accurately reflects the climate danger posed by gas, which informs his research. Using that metric alone, his latest analysis shows that LNG generates at the very least 27% more CO2-equivalent emissions than coal.

Many studies looking at methane emissions from fossil fuel supply chains have found they are underreported. In a recent global analysis, scientists estimate that methane releases from the oil and gas industry are 30% higher than what countries report to the United Nations under the Paris Agreement.

That deeper understanding of just how much of the invisible and odorless gas leaks and is deliberately emitted is being driven in part by a wave of new satellites and aerial surveys that have given scientists far more insight into the scope of methane released from fossil fuels. For some, the latest data has helped unlock the ability to compare climate tradeoffs between U.S. LNG and other energy sources under different warming scenarios.

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