I was riding around my community the other day on my electric bike when I met some neighbors out walking. They wanted to know how I liked it, how much it cost, and how far I could ride before I needed to recharge the battery. After a short conversation, I was getting ready to continue on when one of them said, “Thank God we still have fossil fuels to make electricity so you can ride your electric bike.”
That made me realize there are lot of people out there who believe fossil fuels are a gift from God meant to help humans subjugate and dominate our earthly home. They power all those factories, cargo ships, and trucks that bring the goods we depend on to our local stores — or directly to our door. The electricity they make powers our computers, video games, and televisions. It makes miracles like artificial intelligence and digital money possible. They fly us anywhere in the world we want to go, enable theme parks like Disney World and Dollywood, and light up our cities so they can be seen clearly from the International Space Station.
That’s the good news. The other side of the coin is that fossil fuels put junk into the air that makes us sick and increases average global temperatures to the point where glaciers melt, sea levels rise, and more powerful storms devastate our communities. We are like the person who falls from a 20-story building and tells someone on the 10th floor who asks how it’s going, “So far so good.”
We are hooked on the horns of a dilemma. On one hand, if we stopped using fossil fuels today, civilization as we know it would cease. On the other hand, if we don’t stop using fossil fuels pretty damn soon, we face an extinction event that will see billions of our fellow humans perish and millions of the plants and animals who share the Earth with us become extinct. Scientists refer to what’s ahead as the sixth mass extinction event.
Why? Because it or something very much like it has happened here on our little blue lifeboat at the far edge of a minor galaxy five times previously. According to a report by the United Nations Development Program in 2020,
“The planet’s biodiversity is plunging, with a quarter of species facing extinction, many within decades. Numerous experts believe we are living through, or on the cusp of, a mass species extinction event, the sixth in the history of the planet and the first to be caused by a single organism — us.”
The future of humanity on Earth is dire, and yet, despite all the talk, despite all the pledges, despite all the charts, graphs, and slides that have been created, despite the pleas, protests, and imprecations, the amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere keeps going up when it needs to go down — rapidly. But it’s not.
Later this month, the COP 28 climate summit will take place in Dubai. Many climate activists see this as humanity’s last clear chance to get control of greenhouse gas emissions before we consign our time on this planet to an early end.
What it means is that many of our grandchildren will not live long enough to reach retirement age. For those who remain, they will not be living in the local communities where they grew up or went to school because those places will be underwater. They will be under constant heat stress and suffer from the effects of severe droughts in some places or severe flooding in others.
And yet, as the opening ceremonies in Dubai get closer, many nations are firmly opposed to any proposals that would sharply reduce the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot continue to use energy in a profligate fashion and expect to limit global heating to a level that allows something like normal human life to continue.
Soon the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will decide whether to approve Calcasieu Pass 2, one of the largest liquefied natural gas export facilities ever proposed in the United States. In theory, any decision by FERC will need to be approved by the Biden administration, but Canary Media notes the Department of Energy has never denied an export permit for an LNG facility that has been approved by FERC.
If all planned phases of the project are completed, CP2 will be capable of processing and shipping roughly 4 billion cubic feet of natural gas every day. That’s equivalent to 4% of all the consumer-grade natural gas produced daily in the U.S. last year. Some estimates suggest that the emissions from fracking, liquefying, transporting, and burning that gas will be as high as half a million metric tons of greenhouse gases per day, which is as much as an average methane-fired power plant emits in an entire year.
Eight LNG export terminals are now operating in the US, with 24 more new terminals or expansions of existing terminals planned. The amount of LNG exported by the US in coming years will exceed the remaining carbon budget for the entire planet. The carbon budget is a theoretical calculation that estimates how much more carbon dioxide we humans can spew into the atmosphere before an irreversible tipping point occurs that will send average global temperatures soaring beyond 2º C. How much beyond 2º C is a matter of conjecture, but suffice it to say, billions of humans will die if that number is exceeded.
Oddly enough, FERC is not required to take climate impacts into consideration when deciding whether to approve an LNG terminal. The Natural Gas Act of 1938 — as amended by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 — grants FERC “the exclusive authority to approve or deny an application for the siting, construction, expansion, or operation of an LNG terminal” and requires that projects be approved unless they “will not be consistent with the public interest.”
But is preserving the Earth as a place where humans can continue to thrive not, ipso facto, in the public interest? Not according to FERC, which only sees the issue though the lens of economics. The commissioners look for evidence that the gas sent through a facility will be sought by international buyers and won’t cause methane gas prices to rise too much for U.S. consumers. “The default is approval,” Gillian Giannetti, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council told Canary Media. “It’s a shell of what the public interest assessment is supposed to be.”
In fact, methane gas prices for Americans have surged since these export facilities have come online. Recently, Rocky Mountain Power told the Wyoming public service commission they needed a 30% rate hike because “the increased competition over domestic supply has driven regional natural gas fuel prices upward.” Spire, a Missouri utility, told a similar story recently when it said “international events impacting the global supply of natural gas mean it costs more for Spire to purchase natural gas for our customers.” (Both quotes are from a recent blog post by Bill McKibben.)
The methane gas industry loves to crow about how its product burns cleaner than coal. That much is true. But the amount of methane that escapes into the atmosphere during drilling, transportation, and distribution is so high that the lifecycle emissions from methane gas are actually higher than they are for coal. Bob Howarth of Cornell told McKibben recently that so much methane escapes from the ships carrying LNG abroad that when all is said and done, it’s at least 24% worse for the climate than coal.
But wait, it gets worse. Climate advocate Jeremy Symons limned the dimensions of the climate disaster waiting to happen if all those LNG terminals get built. They will contribute an extra 3.2 billion tons of greenhouse-gas emissions annually, which is close to the entire annual emissions of the European Union. Oil Change International said in September that the US is responsible for more than a third of planned fossil fuel expansion around the world between now and 2030, far more than any other country. America is the “Planet Wrecker in Chief,” it concluded.
How is America supposed to propose greenhouse gas reductions to other countries when it is leading the parade for more fossil fuels? It’s hard to imagine a more hypocritical stance. We are like drug addicts, and oil, coal, and methane are our drugs of choice. Our embrace of fossil fuels is like putting a loaded gun in our mouth and liking the taste of the muzzle just before we pull the trigger.
Will it be difficult to wean ourselves off fossil fuels? Yes it will. Will it require sacrifices and changes to our lifestyle? Once again, the answer is yes. But we are on the path to self destruction. Watching the scenery slide by outside our window is no excuse for not taking evasive action. The time to act is now, not tomorrow. If Joe Biden cannot uncouple himself from the tentacles of the fossil fuel industry, then we should shove him aside in favor of someone who can.
Age has nothing to do with it. Biden has proven to be one of the most effective presidents in history. But if he allows those proposed new LNG terminals to get built, his name will forever be associated with ignominy and shame. There is no time left for the US to strut about on the world stage, pretending to be something it is not. We need to act and act decisively now. Otherwise, there will be no tomorrow for humanity.
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