A Looming US “Carbon Bomb”

The US’s potential LNG buildout is the planet’s “biggest single carbon bomb” and “probably the easiest to defuse,” says Bill McKibben.

The banks of the Calcasieu Ship Channel, which are eroding at an accelerated rate due to waves created by large ships, in Cameron, Louisiana. (Photo by François Picard via Getty Images)

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In Dubai last month, the world’s governments reached a landmark agreement to “transition away from fossil fuels.” Now, the Biden administration faces a defining test of its commitment to that scientific imperative: a massive proposed expansion of liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities in the US. As president, Joe Biden has the executive authority either to block or approve these facilities, a decision likely to impact his climate reputation among young voters and thus, possibly, his reelection chances.

“The buildout of LNG exports on the Gulf Coast is probably the biggest single carbon bomb on the planet — and probably the easiest to defuse,” journalist and activist Bill McKibben told Covering Climate Now. “If you’re serious about a transition away from fossil fuels, then you simply can’t grant licenses for a vast array of export terminals designed to last five decades.”

McKibben has done some of the most important climate reporting of the past year on this looming gas expansion. Since 2016, the US has built several gas export terminals that lock in shipments of fossil fuels overseas for decades to come. In 2022, the US became the world’s largest LNG exporter. Currently, at least 20 more terminals are awaiting Biden administration approval.

“Taken together, if all US projects in the permitting pipeline are approved, they could lead to 3.9 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, which is larger than the entire annual emissions of the European Union,” wrote a group of scientists in an open letter to Biden in December urging the president to halt the expansion.

The fossil fuel industry over the past couple of decades has sold the public hard on fossil gas, claiming that “natural gas” is a “bridge fuel” between coal and renewables. But in fact, “Total greenhouse gas emissions from LNG are larger than those from domestically produced coal, ranging from 18% to 185% greater,” according to a soon-to-be released study by the dean of fossil gas scientists, Cornell University’s Robert Howarth.

The larger scientific picture is clear: Humanity must halve all fossil fuel emissions by 2030 and zero them out by 2050 to prevent the worst of the climate crisis. Good reporting can help audiences understand that scientific imperative, and how a massive LNG expansion fails that test.

Nor would the proposed LNG expansion appear to be in the self-interest of either candidate Biden or American consumers: Since these facilities are expressly intended to send US gas to customers overseas, the likely economic effect would be to raise gas prices at home. Indeed, exporting gas has already raised winter heating bills, and those bills could get more expensive if more terminals are approved. Early last year, the Biden administration’s decision not to fight the Willow Project dented his reputation as a climate-conscious president, and the Guardian reported last week that young voters are dismayed by administration concessions to oil and gas.

Activists are now loudly organizing against the possible new LNG export terminals, and plan to stage a sit-in at the Department of Energy in early February. Last week, the administration announced it would reevaluate the criteria it uses to consider gas export projects. We will undoubtedly see plenty of political spin in the weeks to come on this story. What’s indisputable is that the planet simply cannot handle this “carbon bomb.” Audiences deserve clear-eyed reporting of this fact.

From Us

CCNow Q&A. France’s largest newspaper, Le Monde, has held a variety of training programs over the past year to help journalists better cover climate change and expand their reporting. We recently spoke with Le Monde’s Nabil Wakim, a climate and energy journalist who has helped oversee the initiative, about how the news outlet has trained hundreds of journalists, results of the effort, and climate questions weighing heaviest on the newspaper’s audience. Read it at Columbia Journalism Review.

Noteworthy Stories

Regulation rollback? The US Supreme Court heard arguments this week in two cases that could undermine the “Chevron deference” doctrine, a legal principle that supports executive agency actions, including those by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Court’s conservative majority appeared to favor overturning or scaling back the doctrine, which would be a major win for deregulation advocates. By Melissa Quinn at CBS News…

New climate denial. Attempts to thwart climate action have shifted from denying the reality of climate change to undermining climate solutions, scientists, and activists, according to a new AI-assisted analysis of 12,000-plus YouTube videos by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. Social media platforms need to update their policies to ensure that advertising money can’t be earned from these evolving tactics, the Center argues. By Evan Bush at NBC News…

GOP attacks on climate. Based on former president Donald Trump’s stump speeches and the draft policy documents his backers are currently writing, Americans can expect a major assault on climate science and policies should he be re-elected president. Climate proposals by The Project 2025 initiative, for example, include redirecting government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, to prioritize fossil fuel production. By Scott Waldman at Politico…

Only men. Azerbaijan, a petrostate that will host the next UN global climate summit, has appointed 28 men, some with links to the fossil fuel industry, and zero women to the COP29 planning committee. The She Changes Climate campaign called the move “regressive,” and encouraged organizers to rethink the committee’s gender makeup. By Damian Carrington at the Guardian…

Carbon-free cement. Cement is one of the most carbon-intensive sectors, but a US startup, Sublime Systems, says it has developed a low-carbon cement production method. Sublime’s first factory is set to open in 2026 in Holyoke, Mass. By Katie Fehrenbacher at Axios…

Events, Resources, and More

Key events. Ahead of major elections around the world in 2024, Carbon Tracker has compiled climate dates, topics, and questions to watch this year. Read more. 

Bookmark this. Heatmap News fact-checked all of Donald Trump’s statements on climate change since he left office in 2021. Search the list, which will be regularly updated, by topics including climate and weather, international cooperation, EVs, and wind power. Explore at Heatmap.

Amazon drought. World Weather Attribution is finalizing a study on the influence of climate change and El Niño on the drought in the Amazon River Basin. The findings will be presented at a press briefing, to be held in English with simultaneous translation into Portuguese, on January 24. RSVP.

Climate justice. The DC Science Writers Association will hold a webinar to explore the term “climate justice.” January 24. RSVP.

Renewable energy. SciLine will hold a press briefing about US renewable energy progress, the challenges local communities face in ramping up solar and wind power, and what life could look like in a future powered by renewable energy. January 24. RSVP.

Washington, DC, protest. Leading climate advocates plan to protest the expansion of liquid national gas exports outside of the Department of Energy in Washington, DC, from February 6 to 8. Learn more. 

Oil lobby’s new ads. The American Petroleum Institute’s new multimillion-dollar ad campaign, “Lights on Energy,” advocates for growing the fossil fuel sector and aims to “dismantle policy threats,” API’s CEO, Mike Sommers, told CNN. Climate experts say the industry is engaging in tactics to delay climate action.

  • CCNow encourages journalists to explain how API, fossil fuel companies, and industry lobbyists sell the public on continued use of fossil fuels.

Editors, take note. Climate change is a major voting issue and likely swung the 2020 elections, according to a new CU Boulder’s Center for Environmental Futures study. It’s another reason why CCNow encourages reporters covering the 2024 elections to regularly explore climate change in their elections reporting.

Via X (aka Twitter)

Special interest groups are exploiting the reduced reach of mainstream and local news outlets, filling the void with so-called “pink slime” “news” sites. Floodlight News’ Miranda Green investigated how the utility Alabama Power funds local news sites to downplay negative stories related to coal ash, high electric bills, and pollution.

Industry News

News avoidance. It’s real and increasing, but journalists and newsrooms can take steps to combat the problem, according to the new book Avoiding the News. Here are five evidence-based steps journalists and newsrooms can take, which include reporting more solutions-oriented and actionable stories, according to a book extract published by Reuters Institute.

Jobs, Etc. 

Jobs. The National Catholic Reporter is recruiting a part-time editorial assistant and a staff reporter. Climate Central is hiring a weather and climate engagement specialist. Dow Jones is recruiting a sustainability reporter. Politico’s E&E News is looking for an energy technology reporter.

Fellowships. Solutions Journalism Network is accepting applications for US-based journalists to join its second annual climate solutions cohort. Apply by February 5.