Environmentalists using a Keystone XL template to battle natural gas export terminals can draw a powerful parallel between the infrastructure projects -- both would speed up the development of vast fossil fuel pools -- but face longer odds against a new, harder target in the shale industry.
A KXL-inspired strategy against liquefied natural gas (LNG) export plans emerged last week in a letter to President Obama signed by 16 green groups and spearheaded by two of the oil sands crude pipeline's most active foes. The activists urged Obama to help leave the bulk of global fossil fuels in the ground by cutting off LNG exports, a rationale all but identical to that used in the anti-KXL campaign by climate activists and liberal Democrats.
The carbon-rich Canadian oil sands, however, may prove an easier enemy for environmentalism than LNG exports guaranteed to benefit domestic industry and poised to displace coal consumption. Some allies in the anti-KXL fight question whether the strategy can slow overseas gas shipments.
"Given what's happening vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine, and the misallocation of energy resources, there's going to be unbearable pressure to ramp up the export of LNG, particularly to Europe," Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said in an interview yesterday.
"You have to pick your fight," added Moran, House Democrats' top appropriator for U.S. EPA and the Interior Department. "If you're trying to stop LNG exports -- even keep them at the level they are now -- it's going to be a losing battle."
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), among Congress' strongest voices linking oil sands development to climate change, offered a skeptical view of resisting LNG exports as a means to fight hydraulic fracturing for gas.
"If they're opposed to fracking, stopping the export of LNG is a strange place to draw the line," Waxman said in an interview yesterday.
The first LNG export terminal receiving focused resistance in the vein of KXL is Cove Point, the $3.8 billion proposed LNG export terminal proposed in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay by Dominion Resources Inc. (E&ENews PM, March 18). Organizing resistance in a blue state appears far easier for greens than fomenting opposition in the conservative Plains region crossed by KXL, as Bracewell & Giuliani LLP energy specialist Frank Maisano observed in an interview.
"Their advantage is that Maryland is not Nebraska," said Maisano, whose firm counts many industry clients. "I think their message will be more well received here and create additional challenges for somebody like Dominion, who makes a good case."
Yet even as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission declines to commit to a full environmental impact statement (EIS) on Cove Point, none of Maryland's senior Democratic lawmakers are following conservationists' appeals that the independent agency go further. Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski this month urged FERC to hold more public meetings on the narrower environmental assessment (EA) it plans to issue by May 15 (Greenwire, March 11).
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who represents the district that would host Cove Point, supports the project and already has secured FERC's commitment to a public forum on the EA. In a statement to E&E Daily, Hoyer echoed FERC in leaving open the possibility of an EIS based on the EA's conclusions.
The Marylander, known for his campaign-trail support for moderate Democrats, also restated what environmentalists have long known: He supports both Cove Point and KXL, the latter without the sort of climate mitigation efforts that Obama himself has suggested might soften the emissions blow of oil sands development (EnergyWire, July 29, 2013).
"While I believe that Canada should meet its international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as the U.S. is working to do, my support for Keystone XL is not contingent on a side agreement," Hoyer said.
Talking to the Democratic 'conscience'
Despite their seniority, neither Hoyer nor Waxman is the ultimate audience for the activists working against Cove Point and other LNG export projects. In another echo of their KXL campaign, greens are looking to what 350.org U.S. Policy Director Jason Kowalski described as "the conscience of the party" at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
"It's not that we're going to win the fight one pipeline or LNG terminal at a time, but that we're going to win when decisionmakers are faced with a choice, time and time again, to side with the fossil fuel industry or side with the climate movement -- and they pick us," Kowalski said in an interview.
Chesapeake Climate Action Network President Mike Tidwell, whose group partnered with 350.org on the letter to Obama last week, predicted that Obama's approach to fracturing for gas would evolve as the issue's importance to younger voters becomes more apparent.
"LNG exports are all about fracking -- that's where the surplus [gas] is coming from," Tidwell said in an interview.
A Pew Research Center poll in September found 44 percent of Americans supporting hydraulic fracturing compared with 65 percent backing KXL -- suggesting that the $5.4 billion pipeline might be a tougher opponent than LNG export projects such as Cove Point.
If Obama's inner circle is any guide, though, a hardline stance on overseas LNG sales will be tougher to sell to the commander-in-chief. White House special adviser John Podesta, whose widely known anti-KXL stance prompted him to recuse himself from the pipeline debate before he even arrived on the job this year, last week dismissed the anti-Cove Point letter in stark terms.
"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," Podesta said in comments first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
The industry, meanwhile, is fitting environmentalists for Icarus wings.
"The activists are overstepping," said America's Natural Gas Alliance President Marty Durbin, who witnessed the KXL debate firsthand in his previous post as a top oil industry lobbyist, in an interview. "The general public understands the benefits of natural gas."
Some prominent green groups did not sign the anti-Cove Point letter, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, League of Conservation Voters and Environmental Defense Fund.
Those pushing back against LNG export projects no doubt remember that shrugs and predictions of failure also marked the first months of an anti-KXL fight that has now become a unifying symbol for climate activism.
"By making a big deal out of specific decisions, we can alert people in power to the big decision that needs to be made," Kowalski of 350.org said, likening the approach to convincing a smoker to quit by "making it about one cigarette at one moment in time."
But his group also must reckon with another seeming similarity between KXL and LNG exports. House Republicans are mapping an easy track to bipartisan passage of a bill from Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) that would fast-track LNG sales to U.S. allies in the wake of continued unrest in Ukraine.
Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) yesterday said Gardner's bill would follow a similar path as the first attempt to approve the oil sands crude pipeline via legislation, which has become a perennial affair in the lower chamber.
"Remember, Keystone started the same way -- we did regular order ... and at the end of the process, we had, I want to say, 271 votes the first time we ran it through," Upton told reporters.
Reporters Hannah Northey and Nick Juliano contributed.