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Joe Biden’s Dangerous Natural Gas Game

May 30, 2024

If the devil is in the details, bureaucracy is hell on earth. Though terrain familiar to the Biden administration, Republicans must prepare to navigate it.

Witness the debacle over liquefied natural gas exports, wherein the White House, by “pausing” most new approvals, has catapulted the energy security of key U.S. allies straight into the buzzsaw of its climate ambitions. (The category of exports that will continue to be authorized is tiny.) The Department of Energy claims that a multifactor impact study due in early 2025 is required to determine whether and how the moratorium will be lifted.

Under a certain conception of executive power, it should be simple enough for a second-term Trump administration to end this national embarrassment by pressing “resume” on the authorization process. But as analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies have suggested, merely setting aside the study could provide a basis, however tenuous, for future litigation. In the modern administrative state, it is easier to open than shut the procedural door to delays.

Previous administrations have already published macroeconomic impact studies on the question of LNG exports from the U.S. The Obama administration paused its authorizations until its first study was released in December 2012, for example—curious timing, considering the election the previous month and the study’s actual completion in July of that year. Virtually every scenario in every study, including additional analysis in 2015 and 2018, has found net benefits to accrue.

It’s possible reopening the Obama playbook was the Biden team’s plan all along. After all, Secretary Granholm didn’t commission a new study in 2021, or in 2022, or in 2023. By waiting so long, the DOE can now claim that the cumulative volume of its authorizations is approaching the upper limit of the range that the 2018 study examined. Under the duplicity theory, approvals resume under a second Biden term as soon as the study is released and the election fades away.

But maybe the administration doesn’t even have a plan. It could be sheer incompetence. Gas exports offend the sensibilities of the Democratic base, but Appalachian swing states reap the economic rewards and European allies are desperate to detach themselves from Russian energy. Political operators will try in vain to triangulate even if it is impossible. We can imagine them now, hunched over the asphalt between the West Wing and the Eisenhower building, desperately chalking angles with a compass and ruler.

More ominously, Energy Secretary Granholm may be laying the groundwork for a Kafkaesque application process designed to punish an industry this administration has only ever pretended to tolerate. The fact that DOE’s approving authority is now housed in the Office of Resource Sustainability is suggestive, as is the Fiscal Year 2025 budget request to triple programmatic funding for export authorizations, primarily in the form of “anticipated studies and environmental reviews.”

In any event, undoing what the Biden team has done will take careful work by a putative second-term Trump administration. Putting the matter to rest on a more permanent basis will require legislative action, chiefly amending the Natural Gas Act signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938. In the meantime, “death by study” works both ways.


Tristan Abbey is a senior fellow at the National Center for Energy Analytics. He previously served as a staffer at the White House and the U.S. Senate.

This article was originally published by RealClearEnergy and made available via RealClearWire.
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