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Joe Biden’s Pause on Natural Gas Is Only a Partial Victory

The fight against the natural gas scam continues.

Protesters hold signs reading "No Fracked Gas Exports" and "Off Fossil Fuels."
John Smith/VIEWpress/Getty
Activists take part in a protest against fracked gas exports on June 15, 2022, in New York.

Victories in the climate fight are often hard to rigorously analyze. This one is tricky for all the usual reasons. President Biden’s pause on permitting for new natural gas terminals currently has Republicans howling with rage and climate activists celebrating. Liquefied natural gas, or LNG, is one of the fossil fuel industry’s favorite scams—misleadingly marketed as “clean.” The climate movement has fought hard against the product.

There are political reasons on all sides to exaggerate the significance of developments like this one. Democrats and liberal media want to goose turnout for Biden; showcasing sound climate policy is a better strategy than their usual appeals (which amount to, as a friend of mine put it, “Things are terrible. We are terrible. Send money!”); Republicans, meanwhile, want to animate the angry petrosexuals in their base. And climate organizations may sometimes exaggerate or downplay wins for fundraising and organizing purposes.

But victory also intrudes on the bleak psychological landcape of the usual. Wins tend to get buried, especially in our social media landscape, because when it comes to seeking out and sharing information, we are more motivated by anger than by joy. And people who work on climate are so used to being bombarded with depressing information that progress often doesn’t even register. Yet we all need a win, and need to read about it, which is why it was such a pleasure to see headlines like this one from noted environmentalist Bill McKibben’s newsletter: “Um, I think we all just won.”

The biggest reason wins are hard to discuss is that they are nearly always both real and partial, so the lenses of cynicism and cheer are equally valid. Biden’s move is, as is typical, only a partial victory. Climate journalist Emily Atkin has explained why: Biden has not blocked export of natural gas to other countries, nor has he paused the construction of already-permitted LNG export facilities. Nor has he paused or ceased the activities of LNG facilities that are already in operation. Indeed, as Atkin notes, the volume of LNG exported is expected to double by 2028. Last year, the United States surpassed Qatar and Australia to become the largest LNG exporter on earth.

For years, the fossil fuel industry has promoted LNG as a good alternative to coal because it is a lower-carbon energy source. Technically that’s true, but what that greenwashing language obscures is that LNG emits methane, which is a greenhouse gas and a major contributor to global warming. In fact, methane may be worse in this regard than carbon; it’s 28 times more effective at trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere in the short term.

It’s not Biden’s first good move on methane: he has signed on to international efforts to combat that pollutant, and in December, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a new rule reducing permissible methane from the oil and gas industry. Biden’s move on LNG permitting, however, represents a shift in emphasis for the White House—which has tried very hard not to come across as anti–fossil fuel—and shows that this administration can be moved on climate, especially this year, with young voters so crucial to the president’s reelection.

The decision puts on ice four projects with export permits pending, such as Venture Global’s Calcasieu Pass 2, or C2, in Louisiana, which has been loudly opposed by Gulf Coast activists, including those in Indigenous and other fishing communities. C2 had been slated to become the largest LNG project in the country.

Activists have been fighting against LNG at a local level—from the Gulf Coast to the West Coast to Brooklyn—as well as nationally. Biden’s latest move is the result of this sustained pressure, but had Biden not made this decision, activists were planning massive protests in Washington, D.C., this month against LNG. And despite this latest development, organizing will continue around the country. People are showing up to town halls, writing their elected officials, and protesting both the local environmental and health risks of LNG installations and the global risks to the climate.

We haven’t, unfortunately, seen the end of the LNG scam. The industry’s narrative is constantly evolving. Now that people have stopped falling for the misleading claim that LNG is  “carbon free,” or the intentionally confusing word “natural” inserted into its name, the fossil fuel industry is trying a new gambit: a new fuel mixture called “renewable natural gas,” a biogas that is at least 90 percent methane. It is renewable in the sense that it has been produced from waste materials, but that language obscures the dire harm of methane pollution, including its climate impact. The greenwashing propaganda of this last iteration of the “natural gas” scam has featured prominently in community fights over LNG in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and other places.

Every movement needs wins. But we can’t stop pushing for more. Biden’s pause on LNG approvals should count as a motivating win, the kind that encourages us to keep fighting. Get out the champagne. Then take it to the protest.