Energy Resources Exports: Good for America? Good for the Environment?

Posted on May 10, 2013 by Sheila Slocum Hollis

Proposals to export liquefied natural gas (“LNG”) produced in large part from shale gas recovered by hydraulic fracturing techniques or “fracing” continue the public debate about the desirability of exports of other energy resources.  This political, regulatory, environmental and trade debate engages powerful politicians, lobbyists, environmental groups, trade associations, developers, producers, state regulatory authorities, consultants, academics, and landowners, and a broad spectrum of the press and public. 

On its face, the notion of substantial exports of LNG to both countries with which the U.S. has free trade agreements (FTA) in place and those it does not, seems highly attractive.  Such exports would improve the balance of trade deficits, create new jobs associated with the production; and produce tax revenue.  And, from the broad environmental perspective, LNG exports would lower greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in countries with heavy reliance now and in the future on coal or oil for electric generation, or in countries with need for replacement of nuclear facilities.

Query then, what are the factors that engender the impassioned debate on energy resource export policy?  Key are:  (1) fears of massive development of “frac” gas, freighted with concern over impacts on water, air, and use.  Analogous to the Keystone XL battle, another concern is development of the unconventional gas for the benefit of foreign interests, particularly those without an FTA in place with the U.S. (export to those countries with FTA agreements with the U.S. is deemed by law to be in the public interest).  (2) A second issue in contention on LNG is the impact on domestic energy prices if significant LNG exports limit availability of natural gas for domestic industrial and other uses.  (This issue harkens back to the energy crises of the 1970s when natural gas availability was tight and energy prices sky high.) 

So, although not explicitly an environmental-based objection, such opponents of LNG exports  find friendly bedfellows with the environmental objectors and the commercial interests concerned about their ability to rely upon and benefit from increased gas supply.  Industrial interests argue that stopping exports to non-FTA countries, particularly the insatiable Asian markets, will result in an industrial renaissance with jobs and development growing significantly.  And, some opponents of LNG exports to non-FTA countries ironically, (to this blogger at least) express little regard for overall environmental benefit to potential importing countries and thus the globe.  Rather, the impact on the United States from development of unconventionally sourced gas supply has been their focus point.  Yet, LNG is only part of the energy export debate.

Further complicating this analysis is the parallel potential increase in the export of U.S. coal to energy hungry nations, particularly in Asia.  As noted above, there is a broader questioning on the entire topic of U.S. energy resources exports: LNG, oil or refined products and coal.  In addition to the Keystone XL pipeline standoff, many environmentally oriented players (e.g., the Sierra Club) and political leaders have expressed reservations about the export of U.S. coal for two primary reasons – the impact on the U.S. of new infrastructure for storage, transportation and increased mining activities, and the increase in GHG emissions worldwide as a result of heavier coal-fired electric generation.  And in the past months, several proposed coal export projects have been scrapped. This energy export issue makes for a complicated stew of federal, local and regional politics.  What makes the entire public war of words (and the behind the scenes maneuvering) so fascinating is the question of who or what decides where and with what restrictions U.S. energy resources are to be marketed to the world – the federal agencies, the state and local governmental entities, or the market?  The next few months may provide guidance on LNG and perhaps the Keystone XL pipeline, however, the national and international implications of these decisions are so important that it is unlikely that peace will settle on these matters for decades.



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