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Security Implications of Biden’s Liquified Natural Gas Pause: Real or Inflated? LNG Tanker Clean Ocean sailing out of an American port. Image credit Maciej Margas.

Security Implications of Biden’s Liquified Natural Gas Pause: Real or Inflated?

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Last Thursday, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on the Biden administration’s February pause of new natural gas export authorizations to countries not under U.S. Free Trade Agreements. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the suspension was introduced to investigate the “unprecedented volume” of natural gas export requests the department receives daily. Unconvinced, Committee Chairman James Comer stated the order “demonized oil and gas producers” and put American and European national security at risk to further the president’s environmental ambitions. With some politicians emphasizing environmental impacts and others centering on security and trade, what factors are most important to consider before the pause is lifted in early 2025?

According to Dan Byers, Vice President of Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the advantages of liquified natural gas (LNG) are “settled science.” Though more than 28 times more damaging than carbon emissions in the short term, methane emissions from LNG extraction, transportation, and utilization dissipate in the atmosphere after just around 12 years. As carbon emissions from coal remain in the atmosphere for between 300 and 1,000 years, natural gas can serve as a transition fuel in the path toward renewable energy, lowering emissions while maintaining strong and consistent energy output. LNG extraction and infrastructure have vastly expanded thanks in part to federal incentives, with U.S. export capacity tripling in volume over the past five years alone.

Recent critiques, however, highlight how what works in the lab sometimes fails in the field. In 2022, peer-reviewed research found that gas seepage in the U.S. varies far more than scientists previously predicted. That same year, an EU-based group reported that LNG-powered ships release more greenhouse gasses than traditional “dirty fuel” tankers. In other countries, massive methane leaks due to equipment failures and poor construction have impacted global temperatures. Worst of all, rising global dependence on LNG is making it less of a transition fuel and more of an endpoint for an increasing number of countries. As a result, a team of over 160 scientists demanded in December that the Biden administration reject a new LNG export hub in Louisiana and slow LNG exports overall.

Despite environmental policy being the focal point of public discourse, the Biden Administration emphasizes domestic energy security and competition with China as its top reasons for the pause. On Thursday, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm highlighted that authorized exports to non-Free Trade countries outpace current LNG export levels by more than 400%. While most U.S. natural gas exports flow to Mexico, Japan, and Europe, China—the number one global importer of natural gas—received more than $9 billion of American LNG in 2022. As China’s LNG demand is expected to increase 65% by 2030, the executive order gives policymakers time to strategize new export controls that grant strategic advantages to U.S. allies.

Though dangling China competition aimed to turn the conversation away from the “war against fossil fuels,” the House Oversight Committee remained unconvinced. Despite the U.S. heavily promoting American LNG as a means for Western and non-aligned states to ease off of Russian gas, the executive order stipulates that new export authorizations will only be approved for the 21 states where the U.S. maintains free trade agreements (FTA). Of the ten top U.S. natural gas importers, only four—Mexico, Canada, Japan, and Korea—meet this requirement. According to Congressman Byron Donalds, non-FTA countries that took risks to divest from Russian oil would be shut out from new American exports, which may push them closer to Russia.

U.S. energy officials, however, stated that exemptions to the executive order for ‘national security emergencies’ would ensure that U.S. partners in Europe experience no ill effects of the pause. This was corroborated by a European Commission spokesperson, who stated Europe was “not concerned” about its ability to access American LNG. The ban’s effects on smaller, non-European countries remain unclear. In 2022, American natural gas comprised 100 percent of Ecuadorian imports and 89 percent of Kenyan imports, but these states have yet to receive similar exceptions.

As is typical for temporary directives, the pause’s perceived effectiveness will depend on its immediate impacts on national security and energy resilience, not its contributions towards long-term climate goals. It will be the forthcoming strategy, not the current executive order, that will need to balance energy security with environmental objectives. If Biden’s LNG export strategy leaves non-FTA importers unable to meet their energy needs, states planning a natural gas transition may look elsewhere. However, new policy mechanisms may be in order if the Department of Energy finds that increased dependence on natural gas poses a risk for the U.S. and its allies. Given the U.S.’ unprecedented surplus of LNG, and new reports suggesting demand may be in decline, there’s no risk in taking time to consider impacts before they arise.