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Shipping fracked gas to Asia only boosts coal and dooms the climate

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It’s hard to have missed the many TV and radio ads touting that natural gas is the cleaner fuel and is helping to reduce CO₂ emissions because natural gas is replacing dirty coal in power plants and gasoline in buses.

In reality, this “cleaner natural gas” message is phony public relations spin as the gas industry is racing to export America’s cheap and fracked gas to pricey foreign markets. According to a key government report created by the Energy Information Administration, what’s expected to change when liquified natural gas (LNG) is shipped overseas is that domestic prices will rise to levels that force power plants to switch back to, you guessed it, coal.

Exporting fracked gas is all about selling more fuel widgets to the highest bidder and maximizing profits at the expense of domestic prices, America’s air and water and our climate.

Cash is king - the drive to export fracked gas

Exporting liquid fracked gas is hot because the U.S. has massive gas reserves underground which can be harvested through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. As the graph illustrates, since 2006, fracked natural gas has grown from nothing to 30 billion cubic feet per day; with the Northeast’s Marcellus Shale growing rapidly.

Natural gas market prices are tricky and regional because oceans get between suppliers and users. But, if fracked gas can be piped to a proposed facility at Cove Point, Maryland, and frozen to -270 degrees F to a liquified state, tankers would be able to ship the gas all over the globe. Because fracking has increased supplies, prices dropped from 2008 highs of $8.86 to $2.75 in 2012. Prices have inched up to about $4, but the same unit of gas sells for $16 in Asia.

What happens to natural gas, happens to coal

When gas prices plummeted, power plants reduced coal usage and switched to natural gas. The cheaper fuel just happened to be the cleaner fuel. Power plant coal and gas usage is highly price sensitive, as can be seen by the uptick in the 2012 power plant’s coal usage as gas prices rose from $3 to $3.75; energy-related 2013 U.S. CO₂ emissions rose 2 percent.

Exporting fracked gas is coal’s angel, climate’s devil

According to the Energy Information Administration’s report, Effects of Increased Gas Exports on Domestic Energy Markets, here’s what we can expect with exported natural gas:

  • Power plants will move from gas to coal as natural gas prices rise
  • Consumer prices will rise
  • Increased fracking - 65 percent of exported supply is from additional fracking
  • Industrial gas prices rise drastically - plastics and chemicals impacted
  • Yet, no CO₂ emissions increase

It would make sense that if the country’s largest source of CO₂ emissions, power plants, switch back to coal, CO₂ emissions would rise. Yet on page 19 of the EIA report, Table 2 reveals that CO₂ emissions are unchanged compared to no gas exports.

Ironically, greener and zero emission initiatives are assumed to kick in and offset coal’s increased emissions. The EIA report predicts overall U.S. electricity usage might drop because “end-use consumer cutting back energy use in response to higher prices,” and a “greater proportion of switching to renewables.”

But, that math doesn’t add up for the climate. Exporting natural gas appears to increase greenhouse gas emissions from fracking’s methane release, the energy needed to liquify natural gas, thousands of polluting tanker ships and power plants switching back to coal. Exporting natural gas seems to kill the climate in order for the Oil and Gas sector to chase yearly projected sales between $14 to $32 billion.

Exporting natural gas is only in Oil & Gas and coal’s interest - not the public’s

It’s unclear how exporting fracked natural gas helps “the public interest,” as that was the question the Department of Energy was seeking to answer with the EIA report (page 20).

The big winner in exporting U.S. fracked gas will be natural gas and coal sectors at the expense of many. In the report, even coal’s price is projected to rise because of increased demand as gas supplies tighten with exports. The natural gas industry touts jobs, taxes for municipalities and the nation’s energy independence.

The losers appear to the communities sitting atop shale plays that will experience the negative consequences from increased fracking, and the communities living close to LNG plants and pipelines, and the industrial sector who sees their major business cost, natural gas, drastically increase, to consumers paying higher prices for more home-grown pollution. Is this really worth it?

With five LNG applications approved by the Department of Energy to date and 25 in the queue, a lot more citizen, environmental, and lobbyists groups will need to rattle the Department of Energy’s cage and make their case to slow or stop this fast-moving export LNG train.

Because it’s clear that the oil and gas industry plans to make money and keep showing TV ads that falsely lead us to believe that natural gas is a bridge to a cleaner future.

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