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Louisiana judge ends pause on new natural gas exports, but future expansion still in question

A liquefied natural gas tanker docks at Venture Global's Calcasieu Pass LNG, an export facility that started operating last year on the coast of Cameron Parish, Louisiana.
Halle Parker
/
WWNO
A liquefied natural gas tanker docks at Venture Global's Calcasieu Pass LNG, an export facility that started operating last year on the coast of Cameron Parish, Louisiana.

A federal judge in southwest Louisiana ended the Biden administration’s pause on approving new liquified natural gas export plants on Monday, siding with 16 Republican Attorneys General.

The lawsuit was one of several launched against the U.S. Department of Energy after the agency announced it would temporarily halt approval of new gas export permits in January. The pause came as the federal agency looked to reassess whether the boom in U.S. gas export development is in the public’s interest, including its impacts on the climate.

Louisiana Attorney General Liz Murrill led the lawsuit, joined by Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

In his decision, District Court Judge James Cain, Jr. opposed the pause, calling it “completely without reason or logic.” The reversal marks a win for Republican officials and industry advocates pushing for the U.S. to sell its gas globally.

"This is great news for Louisiana, our 16 state partners in this fight, and the entire country. As Judge Cain mentioned in his ruling, there is roughly $61 billion dollars of pending infrastructure at risk to our state from this illegal pause,” Attorney General Liz Murrill said. “LNG has an enormous and positive impact on Louisiana, supplying clean energy for the entire world, and providing good jobs here at home.”

A climate legal battle

Cain largely agreed with much of the coalition’s arguments in his ruling, though he dismissed 13 of the lawsuit’s 16 allegations against the Biden administration. He found enough substance in the states’ argument that the pause might be outside the energy department’s statutory authority and may have violated the Congressional Review Act.

Some experts say the injunction could be challenged and reviewed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, though the Department of Energy didn’t respond when asked about its next steps.

Cain, a Trump appointee, tried to overturn another climate measure by the Biden administration in 2022. That Louisiana-led lawsuit tried to prevent the federal government from updating its estimate of the cost of the damage from emitting greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, a metric known as the social cost of carbon. The Fifth Circuit Court ultimately overruledCain and dismissed the state’s lawsuit in 2023.

That could happen with this ruling as well, said Dan Grossman, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Associate Vice President of Global Energy Transition. But, even if it doesn’t, Grossman said the lack of a pause is unlikely to have any practical consequences. Any LNG export permits approved now would take years before the facility is constructed and the first gas shipment is sent overseas.

“But I think the message that it's sending – which is we just need to produce and export, produce and export without considering these issues that are clearly within the public interest – is misguided,” Grossman said.

With or without the pause, the Department of Energy will continue updating its review of whether the export of natural gas is in the public interest. The agency said it’s comprehensively reviewing the impacts to the climate, domestic economy, public health, and other factors. In the six years since the Department of Energy’s last public interest review, U.S. exports of natural gas have exploded.

The country is now the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, with export capacity expected to triple by 2030 as more export plants either expand or come online. It’s also the world’s largest natural gas producer, and Grossman said the country needs a deeper understanding of the global impact of U.S. natural gas development.

“If we're comfortable being the largest fossil energy producer, and we're serious about addressing climate change, then analyses like this absolutely have to happen,” he said.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saidthe Biden administration was disappointed by the ruling but will continue to make climate change a priority.

“While congressional Republicans and their allies continue to deny the very existence of climate change, President Biden is committed to combating the climate crisis with every resource available,” Jean-Pierre said.

Though natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, leaking methane — a climate superpolluter — throughout the whole process from drilling to piping to shipping could mean U.S. gas is as dirty if not dirtier than coal.

The ruling came as much of the U.S. is dealing with a protracted, sweltering heat wave reminiscent of summer 2023 — which was deemed the hottest summer on record, possibly even in 2000 years. Last summer signaled the impact that greenhouse gas emissions are having on the planet and forecasters suspect this year’s will be similar.

Ground zero for LNG

The Gulf Coast is at the center of the push to build more liquified natural gas export terminals. More than a dozen have been proposed in southwest Louisiana and east Texas.

Breon Robinson, a Lake Charles native and organizer with Healthy Gulf, is one of the people living in the heart of the LNG buildout. Though she supported the pause on new development, she agreed with Grossman that the ruling isn’t a big loss.

“Everything that was already here, everything that has already continually destroyed and made communities in this area sacrifice zones, it just continued work as usual,” she said.

After watching the Supreme Court overturn major precedents like the Chevron doctrine and other decisions over the past few weeks, Robinson said Cain’s ruling didn’t come as a surprise. She is more focused on the energy department’s review. She hopes it results in a meaningful decision that helps mitigate the changing climate. Lake Charles is both a hub for the oil and gas industry and deeply vulnerable to the increasingly extreme weather like hurricanes.

“It’s becoming like a state of emergency,” Robinson said. “It's getting to a point where these natural disasters are becoming … stronger to where you're telling people that it's gonna just be too fast, where people just have to sit in place instead of move to safety.”

The Department of Energy hasn’t provided an update on its review, though it’s expected to be complete by next January after the election in November. Environmental and industry advocates alike are still waiting to weigh in on the department’s assessment.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.