Looking to halt LNG expansion, opponents urge Biden to block exports

New campaign adds to pressure on Gov. Murphy to block planned natural gas port in South Jersey
Credit: (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, File)
File photo: LNG tanker

More than 200 environmental groups from 27 states urged President Joe Biden to halt the export of liquefied natural gas from six U.S. ports and stop the development of almost two dozen more, including one in New Jersey.

Activists including the New Jersey State Industrial Council and the New Jersey Student Sustainability Coalition argued in a letter to Biden on Wednesday that exporting the super-cooled form of natural gas results in emissions that are at least as potent as coal in forming greenhouse gases, and so are at odds with the climate policies of the new administration.

Exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) stimulates the production of fracked natural gas whose main component, methane, is many times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, the letter said. It said that producing, liquefying and transporting natural gas would produce 213 metric tons of CO2 in the U.S. by 2030, or the equivalent of putting 45 million cars on the road, according to research by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The expansion of LNG export capacity requires the proliferation of gas drilling and fracking to feed the demand created by the export market,” the letter said. “This induces new and expanded fracking and its infrastructure, such as pipelines and, with that, environmental destruction, public health harm, and climate damage.”

In New Jersey, opponents of LNG export are already pressing the Murphy administration to block a plan by New Fortress Energy to build a new dock at Gibbstown on the Delaware River where LNG from Pennsylvania would be loaded onto ocean-going tankers for shipment overseas.

Murphy’s controversial vote

Gov. Phil Murphy wants the state to transition to 100% clean energy by 2050, and is pursuing offshore wind and other policies to drive down emissions and plan for the effects of climate change. But he voted last December to approve the new dock in his role as a commissioner of the Delaware River Basin Commission, a decision that appeared to contradict his policy on energy and climate. Neither the White House nor Murphy’s office responded to requests for comment on Wednesday’s letter.

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The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, a trade group, said LNG export terminals help cut carbon emissions by promoting the use of cleaner-burning natural gas.

“U.S. LNG exports help achieve the Biden Administration’s economic and environmental goals,” an association spokesperson said. “In addition to creating good-paying jobs here at home, LNG export infrastructure helps our allies and trading partners abroad reduce both their emissions from higher carbon-intensity fuels and their energy dependence on countries hostile to U.S. interests, like Russia and China.”

South Jersey port

If built, the Gibbstown dock would be the first LNG export terminal in New Jersey and the second on the East Coast.

The U.S. started exporting LNG in 2016 after the fracking boom beginning in the mid-2000s accessed abundant domestic reserves of natural gas in Pennsylvania and other states, and led the industry to seek overseas markets. LNG prices rose sharply in late 2020 in response to weather-related demand in Asian markets and unplanned outages at some overseas LNG terminals, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The agency predicts that the volume of U.S. LNG exports will rise 30% in 2021 compared with 2020.

The Biden administration could be hard-pressed to ban a business that has seen LNG prices rise to around $6 per thousand cubic feet from about $4 a year ago. But activists who fought successfully to ban fracking for natural gas in New York state in 2014 are hopeful they can do the same with LNG exports.

“They told us for years that we would not be able to stop fracking from coming into New York, and we were able to do that,” said Wes Gillingham of the environmental group Catskill Mountainkeeper during a virtual press conference to announce the letter. “People are starting to understand these impacts and they’re not letting the politicians and the moneyed interests get away with what they have had for years.”

‘Reckless and potentially catastrophic’

The letter to Biden also urged him to reverse a Trump-era federal rule that for the first time allows the transportation of LNG by rail — which could be used to move the fuel to Gibbstown from a planned liquefaction plant in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Allowing highly explosive LNG to be transported through densely populated areas such as South Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania — as planned in the Gibbstown project — is a “reckless and potentially catastrophic deregulation” that endangers millions of people, the letter said.

“The risks of potential catastrophic damage to human life and the environment posed by a fire and/or explosion from a spill or breach of an LNG container outweigh any claimed benefits of this alternative fuel,” it said.

And it said there’s growing evidence that air pollution from LNG production makes people more susceptible to respiratory illnesses including COVID-19.

The letter cited a 2020 study from Georgia State University showing that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rises in response to PM2.5, a type of particulate that’s included in LNG emissions.

“Policy levers to improve air quality may lead to improvements in COVID-19 outcomes,” the study said.