POLITICS: PennAve

Environmental groups gearing up for battle over natural gas exports

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Russia,Climate Change,PennAve,Energy and Environment,Fracking,Zack Colman,Natural Gas,Ukraine

Environmental groups are stepping up their opposition to natural gas exports after boosters in Congress and the energy industry helped propel the discussion early in the Ukraine crisis.

As Russia asserted its influence over Ukraine — a power it possesses by virtue of being the main energy supplier in Central and Eastern Europe — Republicans, industry and a growing number of Democrats seized on the situation to push for expanding natural gas exports as a strategic move to weaken Russia's grip and promote the United States as an energy powerbroker.

Environmental groups and some Democrats have dismissed the export arguments, as they relate to Ukraine, as rhetoric. Ukraine doesn't have an import terminal to processed liquefied natural gas, and even if it did, piped gas would be cheaper. And of the six U.S. export facilities already approved by the Energy Department, only one will be ready before 2017.

It's not that environmental groups haven't made their preferences known for throttling or blocking natural gas exports. They have.

Nonetheless, there is a growing sense among the environmental community that the export backers have captured listeners. Now, they say, it's time for a response.

"Momentum shifts happen and momentum shifts end," Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a group fighting to block a proposed natural gas export project in Cove Point, Md., told the Washington Examiner. "I think the hysteria over [liquefied natural gas] exports is something that will invite a broader and deeper examination of the facts."

Environmental groups say lifecycle emissions from production and delivery of natural gas exports could outweigh the climate benefits of the fuel itself, which is half as carbon dense as coal. They also contend exporting natural gas would encourage more hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which they say pollutes groundwater and allows methane, a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas, to escape into the air.

The environmental community was making those arguments long before the Ukraine crisis. But at the time, the natural gas export debate comprised of dueling arguments surrounding fracking, climate change and economics.

Nothing has been as tangible as Ukraine.

That has pushed lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to offer proposals to speed DOE approval of the 24 outstanding export applications to nations that lack a free-trade deal with the U.S., which must be considered in the public interest.

That it's not just Republicans advocating for exports has made the topic trickier for environmental groups to navigate.

Daniel Kessler, a spokesman for the Climate Lab advocacy group, said "the Right often tries to hijack these issues," such as Ukraine, "to support their own agenda."

But several Democrats who participated in an all-night Senate event pushing climate-change legislation also are touting exports to aid Ukraine.

Of those Democrats, Kessler said, "Here's a prediction: They're going to come over and see the light in the next year or so ... you're going to see them step over to our side.

"If we're searching for a perfect politician we're going to be searching for a long time," he added.

Rather than appeal to lawmakers, though, the environmental community has taken aim at the White House.

Charlie Cray, a researcher with Greenpeace, said the national security argument for exporting natural gas to Ukraine undermines other statements by the administration about the effects of climate change.

On the one hand, he notes, Secretary of State John Kerry has called climate change a "weapon of mass destruction" and a national security threat. On the other, President Obama has championed natural gas, a fossil fuel.

"We're being shunted aside," Cray said of environmentalists. "But my point is, so are their own national security experts."

Sixteen groups sent a letter to Obama this week urging him to block all natural gas exports, saying the practice would contradict the president's climate goals.

It got a cool reception in the White House.

"If you oppose all fossil fuels and you want to turn fossil fuels off tomorrow, that's a completely impractical way to move toward a clean-energy future," John Podesta, an Obama adviser seen as being a friend to environmentalists, said Thursday in response to the letter, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While Podesta acknowledged the logistical realities would prevent exports from immediately aiding Ukraine, he said, "With all due respect to my friends in the environmental community, if they expect us to turn off the lights and go home, that’s an impractical suggestion."

The letter focused on the proposed $3.8 billion Dominion Resources export facility in Cove Point. Tidwell said the spotlight on Ukraine presents a chance for environmentalists to make the case against exports.

That it coincides with the next stage of Cove Point's federal review process is perhaps fortuitous — Tidwell said to expect more protests about the project.

"What they have done by drawing attention to [liquefied natural gas] exports is give an opportunity for the environmental community to educate the public on all the downsides," he said.

Mark Brownstein, associate vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said Ukraine "has upped the ante" on exports. He said he hopes it leads to discussion on how to eradicate "flaring" of excess natural gas and how to better control methane leaks that threaten to erase the climate advantage of natural gas.

"If you believe that natural gas is a strategic national energy resource, then I would hope you also believe that we need to do everything possible to make sure it doesn't go to waste."

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which has largely focused on the fracking side of natural gas rather than exports, said the Ukraine situation should get the U.S. to explore whether advancing energy efficiency and renewable energy is a better way to buttress nations against energy insecurity.

Still, many environmental groups oppose any natural gas exports on the grounds of climate change. In the coming weeks, they appear primed to make that point more clearly.

"The environmental community is pretty united in the U.S. that natural gas is a bridge to nowhere," Kessler said.

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