Letter to the Editor

I Disagree Vehemently

To the Editor,

The paper’s February 1, 2024 editorial, “Environmentalists: Putin’s ‘Useful Idiots,” needs a reply. 

The editorial criticizes environmentalists for encouraging President Biden to instruct the Department of Energy to evaluate more closely the Global Warming impacts if permits are granted for new Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) facilities along the Gulf coast. The editorial, also, takes aim at the President for ‘bowing to pressure from environmental groups’ and agreeing to refer the permitting process for further study.

The editorial makes three assertions: First, that Western Europe, having boycotted Russian gas after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, has had to use coal and oil– fossil fuels with worse Green House Gas impact than LNG—to compensate for the loss of Russian gas.  Second, that Biden’s decision “encourages sociopathic dictators like Putin, who want to see the Western nations divided, to continue their campaign against democracies across the globe.”  Third, that “the action by Biden at the behest of environmentalists accomplishes nothing (and even is a negative) in our battle against climate change in both the short and long terms.” I disagree with each.

Putting aside the editorial’s unfortunate attempt, as captured both in the title and content, to associate disagreement around policy matters with diminished mental capacity and naivety about authoritarian leaders (Lenin, Stalin and Putin are repeatedly mentioned), I wish to examine these three assertions.

As to the first –that Western Europe has been forced to use additional coal and oil in response to the invasion: According to the Center for Clean Energy and Air (CREA), the invasion of Ukraine, ‘has not increased fossil fuel consumptions in the EU.’  There was a temporary and short-term spike in the use of coal and oil, but the sustained impact of the invasion on energy flow was not just to open up a new market for the replacement of Russian gas with LNG from the United States, but—more positively– to accelerate the EU’s effort to further develop alternative clean energy sources and to achieve a form of energy independence.

Has Europe’s demands for new sources of gas been fully met—and without additional LNG plants being built in the US?  Absolutely. In fact, the demand was met rather quickly after the invasion with a combination of energy conservation measures in Western Europe, increases in clean energy alternatives, and LNG imports from several countries. According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the European gas demand, which hit a seven year high in 2021, declined in 2022 (the year Russia invaded) and declined again in 2023. Of longer-term note, the Institute commented in its January 2024 report, that, “The U.S. continues to construct more LNG terminals; just taking into account projects that are currently being built, the country’s LNG export capacity in 2030 will be 76% higher than Europe’s forecasted demand for the supper-chilled fuel in that year.” This projection makes one wonder about what the U.S. LNG industry could possibly be thinking!

One final comment about the editorial’s first assertion which includes the suggestion that LNG produces fewer GHG emissions than oil or coal.  There is research indicating that when LNG’s ‘life cycle’ is taken into consideration the exact opposite might be the case. 

How can that be?  LNG is 85%-95% methane—essentially natural gas cooled to -260F to convert it to a liquid state—and less volume for shipping purposes.   During the multiple steps of gas extraction, cooling, loading, shipping, unloading, distributing to households and factories through pipelines, and then being used at different locations, invariably some amount of LNG leaks into the atmosphere. And when those leaking molecules of methane rise into the atmosphere, for the first 20 years they retain 80 times more heat than an equivalent amount of CO2. In other words, as bad as burning methane is in terms of CO2 emissions, letting methane escape as unburned methane is far worse.  “Newly published research,” climate activist Bill McKibben has written, “demonstrate[s] that huge amounts of LNG leak out to the atmosphere during shipping, making it far, far worse for the climate even than coal.”  In short, the editorial’s enthusiasm for LNG is misguided.

The editorial’s second assertion—that Biden’s decision encourages sociopathic dictators like Putin—can be quickly dispatched.  The assertion defies logic and reason in light of the massive amount of evidence that Biden is doing everything he can to achieve exactly the opposite outcome– to discourage Putin’s imperial impulses and to let other sociopathic dictators know that invading another country will be strongly opposed by the U.S.

The third assertion—that Biden’s decision ‘accomplishes nothing in our battle against Climate Change’ —also defies reason. What does, in fact, defy reason is the proposed build-out of new LNG facilities in Louisiana and Texas for the shipping of more LNG abroad.  That idea is being pushed by an industry desperate to survive in a world shifting away from its product; by an industry hoping to find ways to lock in the fossil fuel addiction for generations to come; and by an industry unwilling to read the ‘writing on the wall’ that increasing demand for LNG is unlikely. Clean energy is the future.

What accomplishes “nothing” in terms of global GHG reductions is shipping fossil fuels to other countries to burn. This immoral strategy is reminiscent of the tobacco industry off-loading cigarettes to foreign markets when industry leaders feared that citizens in this country, once informed of the health dangers of smoking, would buy fewer cigarettes. According, to McKibben again) if the build-out of LNG facilities continues as planned, “U.S. LNG exports will eventually account for more greenhouse gas emissions than every car and home and factory in Europe.”  While that is unlikely to happen because Europe is not about to put up with it, is that really a goal we want our country to pursue?   How can stopping us from advocating for a dystopian future not be viewed as a significant accomplishment?

There are many reasons to be hopeful about our planet’s future and none of them have to do with LNG.  Consider this fact: Western Europe (a focal point of the editorial’s concern) has made phenomenal strides in preparing for a clean energy future built on wind and solar power, coupled with the widespread installation of heat pumps. The coldest countries in Europe, in fact, currently have the highest level of heat pump penetration in the world measured by percentage of households with heat pumps.  As of May 2022: 60% in Norway; 43% in Sweden; 41% in Finland.  (FYI: the US is around 16%)

Such advances in Western Europe, driven by clear, sensible and supportive governmental policies, are the critical steps that are moving that continent away not just from oil and coal, but also from natural gas and LNG.  That should be our energy goal as well. And, in fact it is in many states, our own for sure, and increasingly at a national level under Biden’s able leadership.  

Meanwhile, and separately, we should keep a close eye on sociopathic dictators like Putin, or aspiring sociopathic dictators elsewhere,  and work to prevent them from accomplishing their goals. Michael McCord

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