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The crisis in Ukraine could speed up the shift to cleaner energy

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The war in Ukraine has made getting fossil fuels to Europe a top priority for the Biden administration, but it comes as both Europe and the U.S. are behind on their goals to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change. As NPR's Laura Benshoff reports, the future climate cost of the war depends on how this moment shifts long-term energy planning.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: John Allaire's property in southwest Louisiana sits at a crossroads where coastal wetlands and natural gas exporting meet.

JOHN ALLAIRE: Looking over my marsh, it's beautiful out there. There's birds and everything else. But a mile away is the Venture Global project.

BENSHOFF: That project is a massive facility to take natural gas drilled in the U.S., chill it until it becomes a liquid, pump it on to tankers and ship it around the world. Allaire used to work for BP and other gas companies. Now he and other environmental advocates fear the Biden administration is backsliding on its commitment to combat climate change in favor of helping European allies wean off of Russian gas. Biden recently vowed to send an additional 15 billion cubic meters of liquefied natural gas to Europe this year and, if needed, speed up permitting for more export facilities. Many are proposed near Allaire's home in Louisiana. He says that would not only encourage dependence on fossil fuels, but also damage natural buffers of sediment called cheniers.

ALLAIRE: These cheniers that are high ground - they parallel the coast of Louisiana. They provide surge protection from the storm surge.

BENSHOFF: However, the changing U.S. stance has been greeted with enthusiasm by others. Speaking on Fox News, Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana called this moment a reality check and proposed that the U.S. not only permit more fossil fuel exports, but also finance them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CASSIDY: The Germans are depending upon us to provide them with more natural gas so they become free of Russian energy. They need more coal. They need more oil.

BENSHOFF: The truth is, politicians have little say in directing where global energy companies sell their products. Seeing high demand and high prices in Europe, U.S. companies have already been selling more liquefied natural gas there than in years past. Clark Williams-Derry with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis says American natural gas exporters are already on track to give more than Biden promised.

CLARK WILLIAMS-DERRY: When I looked at that announcement the other day, I thought, OK, this is kind of a nothing burger. They're probably going to blow through that, and that's just based on willing buyers and sellers.

BENSHOFF: He also sees a lot of encouraging signs in Europe's own transition plan to cleaner energy, if it's realized. In the short term, the plan is to swap where fossil fuels come from. But longer term, Amy Myers Jaffe of the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University says Europe wants efficiency and renewables to cut fossil fuel demand overall.

AMY MYERS JAFFE: Germany, faced with this unbelievable crisis, is fast-tracking now its plan to go to 100% renewable.

BENSHOFF: If successful, Europe's plan would cut its natural gas consumption by nearly a third in under a decade, eliminating Russian gas entirely. But for now, our EU allies still rely on fossil fuels, sometimes dirty ones like coal, to keep the lights on. Jason Bordoff, founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, says that's just a reflection of how far behind the U.S. and Europe are in acting on their climate goals.

JASON BORDOFF: We have failed for many decades to make progress on our climate goals, and that's the reality of where we are right now. It's not because higher oil production causes us to miss our climate goals. It's because we're not on track for our climate goals, and therefore the need for oil is going up.

BENSHOFF: This crisis, he says, is an opportunity to change that. Laura Benshoff, NPR News, Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "NEWBURY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is a reporter covering energy and climate for NPR's National desk. Prior to this assignment, she spent eight years at WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR Member station. There, she most recently focused on the economy and immigration. She has reported on the causes of the Great Resignation, Afghans left behind after the U.S. troop withdrawal and how a government-backed rent-to-own housing program failed its tenants. Other highlights from her time at WHYY include exploring the dynamics of the 2020 presidential election cycle through changing communities in central Pennsylvania and covering comedian Bill Cosby's criminal trials.
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