(Bloomberg) -- The Biden administration is set to unveil plans within days for intensifying environmental scrutiny of applications to export natural gas, potentially stalling massive planned projects for months, if not longer.
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The administration’s approach could be announced as soon as the end of this week, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because there’s been no public announcement. White House officials have spent weeks deliberating over the issue — including how aggressive to get — as they navigate competing environmental, economic and political concerns tied to tens of billions of dollars in US gas trade.
A halt in approvals or other significant changes to Energy Department reviews of plans to widely export liquefied natural gas threaten to disrupt development of huge LNG terminals along the Gulf Coast and elsewhere. That includes Venture Global LNG Inc.’s massive proposed CP2 export terminal that has drawn fierce opposition from environmentalists, as well as Commonwealth LNG’s project, both in Louisiana.
A White House spokesman did not immediately comment.
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US law already requires the government to weigh whether exports are in the public interest. But officials have mulled ways to beef up that review, diving more deeply into the impacts the projects will have on climate change.
A policy shift is set to take the form of a pause in approvals while the government conducts a searching review of the environmental consequences of additional exports — akin to the moratorium President Joe Biden imposed on the sale of new federal oil leases when he first took office.
“It appears the administration may be putting a moratorium on the entire US LNG industry,” Shaylyn Hynes, spokeswoman for Venture Global, said in a statement. “Such an action would shock the global energy market, having the impact of an economic sanction, and send a devastating signal to our allies that they can no longer rely on the United States.”
The US is already the world’s largest LNG exporter, but environmentalists argue more approvals will drive a bigger expansion — and unleash more planet-warming pollution. Climate activists, including Bill McKibben, are stepping up pressure to stem the construction of new multibillion dollar LNG export terminals opponents say will prolong the world’s reliance on natural gas while discouraging cleaner alternatives. Activists are staging a Feb. 6-8 sit-in at the Energy Department to demand it halt new LNG approvals.
Environmentalists and administration officials who have urged a tougher approach say it’s time to recalibrate, with dozens of companies already holding licenses to export American natural gas to European and Asian countries that do not have free-trade agreements with the US. The Energy Department made clear last year it will not extend existing non-FTA licenses beyond an initial seven years for companies that haven’t begun building export facilities.
“Putting a stop to expanded gas exports is one of the most important moves President Biden could make on addressing the climate crisis,” Ben Jealous, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “It would mark a bold and historic decision and a major win for communities and advocates that have long spoken out about the dangers of LNG.”
More than a dozen license applications are now awaiting review at the Energy Department, though only one — Commonwealth LNG — has cleared a separate required FERC approval process. Any new environmental study or freeze of approvals would likely affect Commonwealth’s application, which has been pending for more than a year, as well as Venture Global’s planned CP2 project, and the others awaiting licenses.
Still, this change in the approval process would have no impact on US or global gas supply balances for at least the next three-to-four years, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. analysts including Samantha Dart said in a note. All of the US LNG export facilities that Goldman forecasts to come online through 2025, plus two more in 2027, have all the required approvals, they said.
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LNG supporters are mounting a last-minute lobbying blitz, trying to head off delays they say threaten to stall final investment decisions and could kill some planned ventures altogether. They are emphasizing the climate benefits of using American natural gas to displace dirtier-burning coal in power plants worldwide. And they argue any pause in LNG export approvals would be an affront to European allies that relied on US natural gas to help displace Russian supplies after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We want to shed light on how damaging this could be to our allies, particularly those in Europe who are desperate for American natural gas,” Mike Sommers, head of the American Petroleum Institute, said at a Washington energy summit Tuesday.
Industry supporters have been encouraging European officials to be more vocal in raising concerns with the White House and State Department.
Andreas Kaiser, a government counselor at the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, was part of a delegation that visited Venture Global’s Calcasieu Pass LNG plant in Louisiana earlier this week, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly.
--With assistance from Ari Natter and Stephen Stapczynski.
(Updates with analyst comment in the 12th paragraph.)
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