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What exporting American natural gas means for the economy and the climate

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The U.S. is exporting more natural gas than ever before. Now the Biden administration is pausing new projects. Halle Parker with member station WWNO reports on what this means for the industry and the climate.

HALLE PARKER, BYLINE: Cameron Parish, La., is known for its big blue sky and wide-open spaces. It's near the Texas border, right up against the Gulf of Mexico. When I drive through, the area is rural and tranquil, almost preserved in time.

You'll see like these beautiful, glittering marsh ponds, wetlands.

Then an enormous facility rises on the horizon. It's Calcasieu Pass, a natural gas export facility. And in such a flat parish, it lights up the sky at night. Three of these plants have sprung up here in the last seven years. This one is the newest but probably won't be the last. There are a handful of proposals for more plants here, and more than a dozen across the region. That's all because of a booming new business - exporting American natural gas. This is the same gas that might heat your home and fuel your stove, but this natural gas is super cooled and turned into liquid. It's called liquefied natural gas or LNG.

ANNE-SOPHIE CORBEAU: You may ask, but why are we cooling down or liquefying natural gas?

PARKER: Anne-Sophie Corbeau researches natural gas for Columbia University's Center on Energy Policy.

CORBEAU: Well, this is to transport it across oceans. It wouldn't be possible in gaseous form.

PARKER: She explains that tanker ships take it all over the world, including Europe. And that became more critical after Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago. Since then, European countries have tried to move away from Russian gas. And the U.S. stepped up, tripling its export capacity.

CORBEAU: And now the United States is the largest LNG exporter in the world.

PARKER: This is a new position for the U.S. It's been made possible by a boom in natural gas production in the last 20 years. That boom is driving a massive expansion in export terminals, especially on the Gulf Coast. But as the industry has grown, so has the opposition.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, hey, ho, ho (ph), LNG has got to go.

PARKER: More than 200 climate activists marched down the streets of New Orleans in January. John Thomason has been a shrimper in Cameron Parish for over 50 years.

JOHN THOMASON: These plants is just taking over, taking over everything.

PARKER: He's watched as big LNG plants are built on top of local wetlands, and he says it's affecting the number of shrimp. And the huge tankers carrying the LNG also disrupt the habitat. Thomason says it's hard to make a living.

THOMASON: We used to make good money, and now we got work like a damn dog.

PARKER: Thomason also worries about how emissions from the plant could worsen the impacts of human-driven climate change. It's not just Thomason. This massive LNG buildout got the attention of national environmental groups, too. They worry the LNG expansion could prolong the use of natural gas worldwide, a fossil fuel that contributes to global warming. Protest organizer James Hiatt said stopping the buildout was critical for future generations.

JAMES HIATT: We want this place, this planet to be livable for our future, for our children.

PARKER: A week after that protest, the Biden administration hit pause on new permits for facilities to figure out if all these plants are needed. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm stressed the agency would weigh both climate and economic impacts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNIFER GRANHOLM: So as our exports increase, we must review export applications using the most comprehensive, up-to-date analysis.

PARKER: No new facilities will be permitted during the review. Climate advocates cheered the decision. But Corbeau says even with the pause on new projects, the U.S. will remain an LNG powerhouse.

CORBEAU: We are not stopping all the business - very, very important to understand that.

PARKER: Especially since three more LNG plants that were already approved are currently under construction in Louisiana and Texas. For NPR News, I'm Halle Parker in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Halle Parker