LNG: Now it’s all about Export and Fracking

By Ted Gleichman, Chair
Oregon Chapter Anti-LNG Committee 

Note: “Natural gas” may be the most effective rebranding in history.  It is actually 100% methane (see “The Gory Details,” below), so here we call it by its name.

We’ve been working to prevent mega-ports for liquefied natural gas (LNG) on the Oregon Coast and in the Columbia estuary, and to stop the new pipelines necessary to feed them, for most of a decade.  We’ve learned a lot, and this article tackles a few current FAQs.

So they don’t want to import it anymore?

Right.  Until this year, LNG was sold officially as the right way to import methane, to increase domestic supplies and protect our fossil-fuel future.  But that was only a marketing ploy.  North America has the least-costly methane in the world.  Prices in Asia are four- to six times as much; in Europe, they are triple.  Import economics made no sense.

Anti-LNG activists, including Sierra Club leaders, pointed this out to federal, state, and local authorities years ago.  In fact, we warned the Oregon Legislature about this in 2011, to no avail.  The developers consistently denied this was their plan.  Now, throughout the U.S., they have flipped formally to EXPORT, with hedge-fund financing to send methane overseas.

Why is import versus export important?

There are three big reasons.  First, imported LNG was touted as a key fossil fuel for our entire society: to bolster our business-as-usual economy, to protect our way of life, and to enhance our energy security.

That sales pitch is distorted too.  Regardless, though, none of that applies to export.  Depleting our supplies by sending significant quantities overseas risks more job loss, economic stress, and energy problems.  Estimates are that 20-40% of North American methane could be exported if the industry simply plays to foreign markets.

Which leads to the second major difference:  Methane export will raise costs for all domestic users – from folks heating homes with methane furnaces and frying eggs on methane stoves, through manufacturers in all segments of our job-starved economy, to the chemical industry, where methane is a major feedstock. The U.S. Energy Information Administration recently estimated that if all of these export proposals come to pass, methane prices in the U.S. could increase by as much as 54%.  A single plant in Louisiana is estimated to increase all U.S. prices by 10%.

We know that the oil market is a global market, affected only a tiny bit on the margins by domestic production and oil policy.  (It turns out that the President doesn’t actually set gas prices at the pump, campaign rhetoric notwithstanding.)

So globalizing the methane market has been a key industry goal. But moving a gas across oceans is tougher than moving a fluid, and liquefying methane into LNG targets that problem.  The move to export clarifies that the hearts-and-flowers about domestic energy security was just so much fluff.

In a globalized methane market, we will all pay more.  Just as OPEC reaps windfall profits from oil geography, North America’s methane is targeted for windfall profits through LNG export.

Finally, much export methane would come from FRACKING.  Hydro-fracturing of tight underground shale formations is exploding throughout North America, based on new and enhanced extraction technologies.  There are more than 46,000 wells in Colorado alone.  Severe damage to air, land, and water has been documented, and most fracking impacts are wholly or partially unknown (see “The Gory Details,” below).

As eco-leader Bill McKibben points out, no restaurant could dump toxic fumes, deadly fluids, and hazardous waste into the neighborhood, but that’s standard operating procedure within much of the hydrocarbon industry.  The fracking specialists are among the very worst offenders, and human and ecosystem health are being dramatically damaged as a result.

Maybe some fracking can be safe; EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson says that’s possible.  Others disagree; apparently the jury’s still out. While information leaks out and assessment evolves, I use “renegade fracking” for toxic industry practices.

So follow the windfall profits:  LNG export would bring the money for renegade fracking, and renegade fracking fuels LNG export.  They are two sides of the same coin, fused by money.

The Gory Details:To liquefy methane for LNG, it must be cooled to -261° F, reducing its volume to 1/600th of normal to ship by tanker.  This is energy- and carbon-intensive; LNG export terminals must have their own power plants, and LNG tankers burn significant amounts of fossil fuels to maintain that temperature.  LNG is warmed and regasified at the destination port, to move by pipeline.Most hydrocarbons are found mixed together; hence the need for refineries.  Methane is often found with oil, benzene, propane, other hydrocarbons, and miscellaneous chemical compounds; these are stripped out in refining to make it pure methane (CH4).  When methane is burned, the primary byproduct (in addition to heat) is carbon dioxide.  So, contrary to the industry-fueled myth that “natural gas” is a clean fuel, methane is a carbon-based fossil fuel and invariably contributes to global warming and climate change.The cleanliness myth is understandable (and marketable), however, for two reasons:  First, unlike coal, tar sands, and oil, burning methane does not directly create toxic byproducts.  You can burn small quantities in your kitchen at low risk.  Second, when burned, it releases less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than coal and other hydrocarbons.

But methane itself is a potent greenhouse gas, contributing massively to climate disruption.  For its first 20 years in the atmosphere, by volume, methane traps 75 times more heat than carbon dioxide.  Within the general crisis of fossil fuels, methane that leaks or is vented from fracked wells is a major problem.  Atmospheric leaks are epidemic, and significant in volume.  Methane is not clean.

Hydro-fracturing (fracking) is the process of pumping high-pressure fluids into methane-rich shale formations, breaking the rock down so methane and other hydrocarbons will flow into wells for extraction.  Formulas for fracking fluids – most of which are highly toxic – are secret under the 2005 Energy Act.  More than 500 fracking compounds have been identified by independent activists.  That federal law, structured by then-Vice President Richard Cheney, also removed EPA jurisdiction over fracking.  States and local jurisdictions throughout the country are struggling with how to protect their people and ecosystems, since there is such minimal federal opportunity for leadership.

What about the pipelines?

Moving methane for LNG would require hundreds of miles of new high-pressure explosive pipelines.  Developers want eminent-domain paths as wide as interstates, ripping through national and state forests, woodlands, farms, and vineyards.

These new pipelines are unnecessary (and in the wrong place) for any current or projected actual need; existing methane infrastructure is decent for that.  These would only run from the existing major pipelines serving population centers to feed the new LNG export terminals.

What’s going on with the projects we’re trying to stop?

Glad you asked: there are two now, bookending the Oregon Coast.

Oregon LNG.  In Northwestern Oregon, Oregon LNG recently came roaring back from apparent dormancy.   They’ve restructured their effort to build in Warrenton, on the south bank of the Columbia River by Astoria.  The Port of Astoria is leasing State-owned land there, and subletting it to Oregon LNG.

They have re-routed their pipeline to bypass Washington County, where many of the best-organized opponents are.  Now, they want to dig from a major pipeline in Washington State, near Woodland.  It would run 86 miles, tunneling under the Columbia, through Columbia and Clatsop Counties, and back to the river.

In Clatsop County, years of first-class political organizing helped to flip the County Commission to a strong anti-LNG majority.  They revoked a prior decision authorizing the pipeline, and Oregon LNG sued over their right to do that.  That case is currently in the Oregon Court of Appeals and will go on for months to come.

But Oregon LNG is pitching their refurbished plan to elected officials, labor leaders, and bureaucrats across the communities of interest.  They are claiming a $6 billion project, with 2,000 construction jobs and 150 permanent jobs; they are getting strong support from some Building Trades union leaders.   (They are focusing on export, of course, but claim they’ll establish import capability too, in case we ever need it.)  Regardless of the Court of Appeals outcome, this will be a tough battle for the duration.

Jordan Cove.  In Southwestern Oregon, this Coos Bay project has moved completely to export.  So the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ruled that export does not equal import, and revoked licenses for both the LNG import terminal and its pipeline.  The Pacific Connector Pipeline would run 235 miles from the existing methane network near Klamath Falls, through Klamath, Jackson, Douglas, and Coos Counties.

This was good news; Jordan Cove must redo major parts of federal, state, and local approvals, including new environmental impact statements.  However, FERC made a point of noting that they still see “the market” as determining facility need – not any independent analysis of the value to the people of the United States.  So if a developer believes they can make money, they can get a site license and build.

Now, state and local issues are critically important.  One is the decision by the Oregon Department of State Lands to authorize the Port of Coos Bay to dredge some 5.6 million cubic yards from the estuary to make room for LNG tankers (and coal tankers, another goal for the Port).  This is the largest dredging project in an Oregon bay in history; one leader in Southern Oregon calculated that the dredging spoils would fill the Rose Bowl 16 times over.

Sierra Club’s national leaders have been vital, helping to assemble a coalition (and helping to pay for the legal team!) for a formal state appeal of this dredging permit.

Liquefaction Power.  It takes a lot of juice to liquefy methane for ocean shipment.  Jordan Cove has proposed a new 350-megawatt methane-fired power plant.  Oregon LNG has not yet revealed their liquefaction energy plans.

What’s Sierra Club doing nationally now about methane?

Attention and determination have spiked upwards this year.  Our Natural Gas Reform Campaign, which has focused heavily on fracking, has just been renamed the Beyond Natural Gas Campaign and added staffing.

Most critically to us, national Sierra Club leaders are serious about fighting LNG export.  Our leadership knows it is irrevocably linked to fracking, and we are engaged in five legal battles against LNG export (including the Coos Bay dredging appeal) and tracking eight other project proposals (including Oregon LNG).

We can’t overstate the importance of having serious legal resources on our side.  Industry money is unlimited, and our lawyers keep us in the institutional game.  That’s been vital – although, in most cases, it is probably not enough to win all by itself.

So how do we win on LNG export and fracking?

Good question.  I don’t think anybody knows yet.  There’s a lot of good work going on, within Sierra Club and with our allies, on the various legal, technical, and political questions.  We know grass-roots organizing will be vital to our success.  As a Buddhist friend says, “More to be revealed!”

And here are two other key things we know:

  • We need to end all use of fossil fuels.  They’ve been pretty wonderful for us over the last 250 years, powering industrial society (along with horrific oil spills, mercury in our food, etc.)  But their time has past: now, they are causing climate disruption that will extinguish civilization if it is not mitigated as quickly as possible.  This slow-motion catastrophe shows up most vividly in extreme weather – and there is nothing slow about hurricanes, tornadoes, and forest fires.  So we know we need an urgent transition to genuine clean renewable energy.
  • And clean renewable energy is here, now, and ready for prime time.  The technology works and the economics work.  This is vital, because it’s not enough for Americans just to fight evil; we need simultaneously to promote the good.  We can do that: it’s what the “Beyond” means in our campaign names.

Ending fossil fuels and developing clean renewable energy are bottom-line policies for Sierra Club, nationally and in Oregon.  I’m confident we’ll come up with the right ways to stop LNG export and renegade fracking.  So stay tuned: we’ll definitely be in touch!

Ted Gleichman, Chair, Oregon Chapter LNG Committee – 503-781-2498; ted.gleichman@oregon.sierraclub.org

One Response to LNG: Now it’s all about Export and Fracking

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