On Friday, May 17, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced it had conditionally authorized Freeport LNG Expansion, L.P. and FLNG Liquefaction, LLC (collectively Freeport) to export domestically produced liquefied natural gas (LNG) to countries that do not have a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States from the Freeport LNG Terminal on Quintana Island, Texas. This marks only the second time that the DOE has granted a natural gas export license to non-FTA countries, and only the first after DOE ceased action on all applications pending a study of the economic impacts of LNG exports. The Freeport approval marks a noticeable, but likely incremental shift in US policy towards increased export of natural gas to non-FTA nations, opening up new markets for the boom in domestic natural gas production.
The DOE rejected opponents’ arguments that the project would be inconsistent with the public interest. Among other reasons, the DOE found that the proposed exports are likely to yield net economic benefits to the US, would enhance energy security for the US and its allies, and were unlikely to affect adversely domestic gas availability, prices or volatility. Accordingly, DOE conditionally granted Freeport’s Application, subject to satisfactory completion of an environmental review pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and DOE. FERC will serve as the lead NEPA review agency. DOE will subsequently reconsider the conditional order in light of the NEPA analysis led by FERC and include the results in any final opinion and order.
Environmental issues will now take center stage as interested stakeholders seek to influence the government’s conclusions in the NEPA review. In support of its application, Freeport extolled the following environmental benefits of the project:
• Natural gas, the cleanest burning fossil fuel, would replace coal-fired power resulting in substantial reductions in greenhouse gas and traditional air pollutants.
• Compared to the average coal-fired plant, natural gas fired plants emit half as much carbon dioxide (CO2), less than a third of the nitrogen oxides, and one percent of the sulfur oxides.
• Natural gas, if used as a transportation fuel, also produces approximately 25 to 30 percent less CO2 than gasoline or diesel when used in vehicles, and is not a significant contributor to acid rain or smog formation.
Opponents of the project, however, are less convinced of its environmental benefits. These include the Sierra Club, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network (consisting of 80 organizations), NRDC, among others. Specifically, they assert that LNG exports will increase demand for natural gas, thereby increasing negative environmental and economic consequences associated with fracking, the process used for shale gas production. They argue that the DOE’s two-part study of the economic impacts of LNG exports, upon which DOE relied in conditionally granting Freeport’s application, failed to consider the cost of the environmental externalities that would follow such exports, which include:
• Environmental costs associated with producing more shale gas to support LNG exports;
• Opportunity costs associated with the construction of natural gas production, transport, and export facilities, as opposed to investing in renewable or sustainable energy infrastructure;
• Costs and implications associated with eminent domain necessary to build new pipelines to transport natural gas; and
• Potential for switching from natural gas-fired electric generation to coal-fired generation, if higher domestic prices cause domestic electric generation to favor coal-fired generation at the margins.
Sierra Club and other organizations have previously challenged the adequacy of FERC’s and DOE’s NEPA determinations in other LNG export applications. In the first LNG export license approval for Sabine Pass Liquefaction, LLC (DOE Docket. No. 10-111-LNG), Sierra Club, as an intervener in the FERC proceeding, challenged the adequacy of FERC’s NEPA compliance, and the lawfulness of the FERC’s determination to authorize the Project facilities. The FERC addressed these concerns and found that if a series of 55 enumerated conditions were met, the Project would not constitute a major Federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.
After FERC authorized the Liquefaction project, Sierra Club filed a motion to intervene out of time before DOE , again challenging FERC’s NEPA determinations. DOE rejected Sierra Club’s motion, and granted the final order approving the LNG export on August 7, 2012. Sierra Club subsequently sought a rehearing on the final order which was also rejected by the DOE in a January 25, 2013 order.
Similarly, earlier this month, Sierra Club and other environmental organizations objected to the proposed Dominion Cove Point LNG export terminal in Maryland, arguing the project would harm the Chesapeake Bay’s economy and ecology, increase air pollution, and hasten fracking and drilling in neighboring states. On May 3, 2013, the coalition filed public comments and a timely motion to intervene in the proceedings calling on FERC to conduct a thorough environmental review, or prepare an EIS, of the project. The proposed terminal will be the only LNG export facility in the east coast, providing foreign markets with access to natural gas from the Marcellus Shale.