People are mobilizing to prevent the construction of numerous liquified natural gas (LNG) ocean terminals around the US which will increase dependence on fossil fuels, contribute to global climate change and delay the development of alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power. Major fossil fuel corporations and their puppet, the National Petroleum Council, are currently pushing to develop a global trade in LNG similar to the current global trade in oil. Such a global trade is precisely the wrong direction to be heading given the environmental realities associated with the emission of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels. Concerned inhabitants of the earth need to do whatever we can to stop the construction of any new LNG infrastructure and channel the money that would be spent on this short-term, unsustainable technology into sustainable energy sources.
Direct action is already happening. Over a hundred people used fishing boats, sailboats and kayaks August 13 to cross the Colombia River from Wahkiakum County, Washington so they could occupy a beach at Bradwood, Oregon where NorthernStar Natural Gas is seeking to build a huge liquified natural gas import terminal. The action came at the conclusion of the West Coast Climate Convergence. If built, the terminal’s peak daily capacity would be twice the average daily use of Oregon natural gas consumers. There have been other protests against LNG terminal proposals in Vallejo, Calif; Tijuana; Harpswell, Maine; and Eureka, Calif.
LNG – A primer
Liquified natural gas is a technology for moving natural gas from areas where it is plentiful to areas where natural gas is scarce. Natural gas (mostly methane) is the type of gas people burn in gas stoves, water heaters, and dryers. It is also one of the major fossil fuels used to produce electricity. About one-third of the natural gas burned in the US is used to generate electricity according to the US Energy Information Administration. Oil companies drill wells to tap deposits of natural gas and then pipe the gas to the end user. Since natural gas is distributed fairly evenly around the world, most natural gas used in the US and around the world is from local sources. However, heavy US use of North American natural gas deposits for decades — plus ever increasing demand — are threatening to bring natural gas shortages to the US.
That’s where LNG comes in. Energy companies make LNG by super cooling natural gas to minus 259 degrees Fahrenheit until it becomes a liquid. Once it is liquid, it can be loaded on ships and moved around the world. A number of countries that have huge natural gas reserves — Algeria, Australia, Brunei, Indonesia, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Trinidad and Tobago — want to liquify their gas so they can export it to the USA. They can’t move it unless it is cooled — natural gas is usually moved via pipeline and it would be too expensive to build a pipe between, say, Indonesia and Los Angeles. When the gas is liquified, it only takes up 1/600th the space it takes in a gaseous form.
Liquifying natural gas is very expensive and uses massive amounts of energy. Although natural gas is frequently considered the “greenest” of the fossil fuels — because burning it gives off relatively less carbon dioxide (CO2) greenhouse gas than burning coal — burning natural gas still gives off billions of tons of carbon dioxide and contributes to climate change. Burning LNG is even worse because the process of liquifying the gas, moving it via ships, and then heating it to re-gassify it means that even more CO2 is emitted to get a particular job done. According to Powers Engineering, using LNG gives off 20 percent more CO2 than using regular natural gas.
But the world demand for energy is so huge that the transactional costs of making and moving LNG are overcome by the profits that can be made. Right now, the use of LNG is fairly limited. There are about 40 LNG receiving terminals located in Japan, South Korea, the US and some European Countries and about 136 ships which transport more than 120 million metric tons of LNG every year. About 70 percent of the world trade in LNG goes to Japan, Taiwan and South Korea which have limited domestic gas supplies. In the US, there are currently import terminals in Everett, Massachusetts; Cove Point, Maryland; Elba Island, Georgia; Lake Charles, Louisiana; and Peñuelas, Puerto Rico.
There are currently proposals on the table to build dozens of more LNG import terminals around the US — in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Maine, Georgia, Maryland, Florida, New York and California — according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the lead agency that approves the construction and operation of LNG terminals. If you are near a proposed terminal, you can join efforts to oppose that terminal.
In 2003, federal reserve chairperson Alan Greenspan said LNG was a “hot topic” and noted that LNG could play a big part in meeting the future energy needs of the US. The US Department of Energy predicts that US LNG imports will increase from 2 to 8 percent of U.S. natural gas consumption by 2010.
Building each new import terminal costs $500 million – $1 billion. The liquification plants built at the point of production are even more expensive — a typical one costs $1-3 billion. Dozens of each type are on the drawing board. That is a long term investment that could be made in solar or wind technology so that natural gas — in any form — wouldn’t have to be burned to generate electricity in the first place. Building a brand new, world-wide LNG infrastructure will lock the world into burning more and more natural gas for generations to come by making it possible for people in areas where natural gas supplies are being depleted to exploit overseas supplies.
The Green Alternative
If LNG terminals are not built in the US, the US will have to rely on its own, domestic natural gas supplies along with imports from Canada and Mexico. As these supplies get more scarce compared with the growing demand, the price of natural gas will gradually rise and alternatives to burning natural gas will become more attractive and will be constructed. US natural gas demand is predicted to increase as much as 30 percent over the next 10 years, most of it going to make electricity.
The most concrete alternative to natural gas — which is technologically available right now — is to generate electricity from solar, wind and other re-newable sources, rather than from natural gas. A quarter of the US land mass has sufficient wind to generate electricity cheaply and just seven southwestern states have enough solar power to generate ten times the total current US electricity consumption, according to the Worldwatch Institute.
Both solar and wind are economically viable, although a bit more expensive than gas fired electricity. Without LNG, natural gas prices will gradually rise and zero emissions electricity will eventually be cheaper than gas fired power. Currently, only economic crumbs are being invested in non-global warming alternatives — the big money is being spent on developing more fossil fuel infrastructure, like LNG. In 2006, about $4 billion was invested in wind in the US, vs. $340 billion on oil and gas globally in 2005.
Burning natural gas to generate electricity emits about 400 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity, or between 480 and 560 grams of CO2 per kwh if LNG is burned — there are more emissions because of the energy required for liquification, transportation and re-gassification. Natural gas fuels about 19 percent of US electricity. For comparison, burning coal (which generates half of the electricity in the US) emits 770 – 830 grams per kwh. Using solar, wind, wave energy, geothermal or hydro emit no CO2 other than the CO2 emitted to initially build the generating facilities.
Of course the US needs to stop burning coal to make electricity, too, but it is a false choice to say the only options for making electricity are either natural gas or coal. Both of these fuels are causing climate change. If all US electricity was made from gas, not coal, the climate would still change, just a bit more slowly. Zero emissions alternatives are the only true green technology.
If the money that is to be spent just on LNG infrastructure projects — import terminals and liquification plants — was spent on building windmills and solar farms, the US could switch its dependence on natural gas for generating electricity to climate neutral alternatives.
Contrast this to a future where untold billions are spent to develop LNG import terminals, liquification plants and ships to carry the LNG. All the gas moved around will be burned, making the problem of global climate change worse and worse. Eventually, the gas wells will run dry — natural gas is a finite resource — and the sustainable alternatives described above will have to be constructed anyway — assuming climate change hasn’t so damaged the earth’s life-support systems that human beings aren’t going extinct by then. Can’t we just build the alternatives now?
LNG expansion can still be stopped — people around the US are organizing to oppose specific terminals in their communities. Many of these efforts are effective because of strong “not in my backyard” politics based on fear of LNG accidents and pollution.
Understanding of the need to reduce burning of fossil fuels to avoid global climate change has increased dramatically over the last year or two. Now its time to move this consciousness beyond the armchair and into the streets. A few corporations seeking short-terms profits are making decisions that will change weather on the whole planet. Is one of these corporations based in your town? Will one of the LNG import terminals be built near you? What can you and your friends, neighbors and community do to stop LNG?