LNG Expansion Sparks Debate on Environmental Costs

fish exploring coral lynsey grosfield earth insight

Expanding LNG facilities disrupt habitats, leading to increased noise pollution and threatening marine life. Photo credit: Lynsey Grosfield-Earth Insight

by | Jun 7, 2024

This article is included in these additional categories:

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is increasingly considered a key component of the global energy landscape, called out as a “bridge fuel” in the transition to renewable energy. Composed primarily of methane, LNG is a cleaner-burning alternative to other fossil fuels, however, the rapid expansion of LNG infrastructure poses significant threats to coastal and marine ecosystems worldwide. Understanding these impacts is crucial as nations invest heavily in LNG infrastructure, which could lock the world economy into fossil fuel dependency for decades to come.

A new report from Earth Insight, released ahead of World Oceans Day, delves into the worldwide plans for expansion of LNG infrastructure, and provides a stark overview of expected impacts.

LNG Infrastructure and Its Global Surge

The demand for LNG has surged due to the perceived environmental benefits and geopolitical pressures. Countries are shifting away from more polluting fossil fuels like coal and oil and seeking alternatives due to fluctuating gas prices and geopolitical tensions, such as those resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Gas-exporting nations are capitalizing on this demand surge to boost their economies, while gas-importing countries are scrambling to secure reliable energy sources in the wake of diminishing supplies of cheap Russian gas.

The financial scale of this expansion is monumental. Over $1 trillion USD is expected to be invested in LNG infrastructure globally, a move that risks entrenching the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and delaying the necessary transition to renewable energy. Such extensive investment in long-term infrastructure could perpetuate a fossil fuel economy and hinder efforts to keep global warming below the critical 1.5 C threshold.

Environmental Impact of LNG on Oceans

While LNG is touted for its lower carbon dioxide emissions compared to other fossil fuels, its primary component, methane, is a potent greenhouse gas that significantly contributes to global warming. Methane is responsible for nearly one-third of the warming effects we experience today, highlighting the critical impact of leaks and emissions from LNG infrastructure.

The environmental repercussions extend far beyond greenhouse gas emissions. LNG infrastructure and its associated activities, such as increased shipping and noise pollution, threaten marine ecosystems. These activities disrupt habitats, increase the frequency and intensity of marine heatwaves, and lead to coral bleaching and species displacement. The warming of the world’s oceans has been accelerating, with 2023 recorded as the hottest year ever, exacerbating these threats.

The construction of new LNG facilities often overlaps with sensitive marine areas, leading to ecological disruptions. The shipping traffic in LNG corridors can interfere with marine migration patterns and nursery grounds, while noise pollution can disrupt mating behaviors and communication among marine species.

Case Study: United States Gulf Coast

The United States Gulf Coast, a vital hub for LNG exports, is facing a complex interplay of economic opportunities and environmental challenges. The region’s extensive infrastructure and strategic location make it a key player in the global LNG market. Over the past decade, the Gulf Coast has seen a surge in LNG export terminals, significantly boosting the U.S. presence in global energy markets. This growth has brought economic benefits, including job creation and regional development, positioning the U.S. as the world’s top LNG exporter. This region is home to several operational LNG terminals, with over 20 more planned or under construction.

However, the expansion of LNG infrastructure along the Gulf Coast has raised significant environmental and community concerns. The area’s exposure to extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, underscores the vulnerability of LNG facilities to climate risks. Additionally, the increase in industrial activities has amplified local air and water pollution, affecting nearby communities, particularly those already burdened by industrial pollution. Reports indicate that communities near LNG facilities have higher rates of asthma, obesity, and cancer, making them more vulnerable to pollution and climate-induced events.

For a deeper dive into the Gulf Coast situation and case studies from other regions including the Gulf of California, the Verde Island Passage, Mozambique, and the Atlantic Coast of Brazil, the Earth Insight maps and report provide a compelling analysis delving into each region’s specific challenges and socio-economic considerations.

Policy and Regulatory Responses

Governments and international organizations face the challenging task of balancing economic growth with environmental sustainability. The U.S. government’s recent pause on new LNG export approvals for non-free trade agreement countries is a notable example of regulatory action aimed at addressing these concerns.

This pause does not affect existing or under-construction projects but effectively delays any substantial decision-making until after the November U.S. presidential election, providing political cover for the current administration while leaving the door open for future developments. If re-elected, the Biden administration could still proceed with new LNG projects. In contrast, a Trump administration is expected to lift the pause immediately, favoring continued rapid expansion.

Strong international regulations and policies that protect biodiversity-rich regions and uphold the rights of local and indigenous populations are urgently needed to mitigate the adverse impacts of LNG infrastructure. Redirecting investments towards renewable energy sources and long-term sustainable solutions is crucial for reducing reliance on fossil fuels and addressing the climate crisis.

Evaluating the Long-Term Effects of LNG Expansion

The global expansion of LNG infrastructure involves complex environmental, social, and economic considerations. Developments in areas such as the U.S. Gulf Coast and the biodiverse waters of the Philippines highlight the potential for both disruption to marine ecosystems and impacts on local communities. While LNG is seen as a short-term solution to energy demands, its long-term effects on the environment and society are subjects of ongoing debate.

It is crucial for stakeholders, including governments, businesses, and communities, to engage in comprehensive planning and regulation. This approach can facilitate a balanced transition towards renewable energy sources while addressing the need for economic development and environmental stewardship. Ensuring that future infrastructure projects align with principles of sustainable development will be key to supporting both economic growth and the preservation of vital ecosystems.

Additional articles you will be interested in.

Stay Informed

Get E+E Leader Articles delivered via Newsletter right to your inbox!

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Share This