Most Americans have probably heard about the "boom" in natural gas, with U.S. production up by one-third since 2005. Besides historically low natural gas prices, one consequence is that companies like Exxon Mobil are now pushing the federal government to approve permits for more than 20 liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals. Big fossil fuel's goal is to sell U.S. natural gas overseas, where it can fetch a higher price. Is that really such a good idea?
Future generations will be incredulous that we ever debated the wisdom of increasing LNG exports. The permits that the Department of Energy is considering would export as much as 45 percent of current U.S. gas production. Once the terminals are built, trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) currently being negotiated could make it difficult to impossible to limit how much gas we actually export. The result will be higher domestic prices as well a lot more drilling for natural gas—primarily by fracking.
So far, the Department of Energy has failed to consider the environmental and health consequences of such a radical increase in natural gas drilling. They really should, because both the potential risks and the known harms are enormous. Here are five environmental reasons why LNG exports are a very bad idea:
1. The current shale-gas rush has already had serious effects on our air quality. As the Department of Energy's own Shale Gas Subcommittee reported: "Significant air quality impacts from oil and gas operations in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Texas are well documented, and air quality issues are of increasing concern in the Marcellus region (in parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York)."
Because of natural gas drilling, parts of rural Wyoming now have smog worse than that of downtown Los Angeles. This air pollution doesn't just spoil the view—it's been linked to respiratory disease, heart failure, and premature death.
2. Increased fracking will endanger and further strain increasingly scarce water resources. A single fracking well can require up to 5 million gallons of water. And because that water is contaminated during the fracking process, most of it must be considered toxic waste and can never be used for human consumption again. Meanwhile, contamination of surface and groundwater sources from spills and leaks remains an ever-present risk.
3. Intense gas production can transform entire regions—and not for the better. We're talking hundreds of thousands of new wells, along with a vast infrastructure of roads, pipelines and support facilities. Pennsylvania's forests have already been decimated by fracking wells—we could see that pattern repeated from New York to Monterey.
4. Higher natural gas prices could help revive the fortunes of the declining coal-fired power industry. At a time when we should be working to move as fast as possible beyond all fossil fuels, burning more coal is beyond crazy—it's suicidal.
5. Which brings us to what may be the most important reason we shouldn't ramp up gas production so we can export LNG: Increased use of any fossil fuel is the wrong move if we want to limit climate disruption. The International Energy Agency estimates that to have a shot at keeping global warming within a range that is potentially survivable, we need to keep two-thirds of our known oil, coal and natural gas reserves in the ground.
LNG export terminals are the latest example of how the Obama administration's "all of the above" energy approach is misguided and fundamentally at odds with its stated priority of fighting climate change. How can we justify taking a huge additional percentage of U.S. fossil fuel reserves and selling them overseas for profit at the expense of countless future generations? Then again, people once made economic arguments for perpetuating the slave trade and other morally repugnant enterprises. They were profoundly wrong. Let's not give history a reason to say the same of us.