DOE Proposal to Categorically Exclude Natural Gas Exports is Fatally Flawed

By Romany Webb and Hillary Aidun

On Monday, June 1, the Sabin Center submitted comments opposing a Department of Energy (DOE) proposal to categorically exclude natural gas export approvals from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA’s implementing regulations allow federal agencies to categorically exclude actions if, and only if, they “do not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment.” As we explain in our comments, DOE has not undertaken sufficient analysis to determine whether natural gas export approvals meet that requirement. In its proposal, DOE claims that the “transportation of [exported] natural gas by marine vessel normally does not [have] significant environmental impacts,” but ignores other ways in which natural gas exports may impact the environment. Most notably, DOE ignores impacts associated with induced natural gas production and use, both of which result in significant greenhouse gas emissions that must be considered under NEPA.

DOE claims that it is not required to consider the greenhouse gas emissions associated with upstream natural gas production and downstream use because it has “no authority to prevent” those emissions. However, as we explain in our comments, that is not the correct test. The courts have made clear that an agency’s obligation to consider reasonably foreseeable downstream emissions turns on whether it has legal authority to act on information about those emissions. DOE has such authority when approving natural gas exports. Indeed, as DOE has itself recognized, its approval decision must be based on a consideration of upstream and downstream environmental impacts (among other things). DOE has, therefore, previously analyzed upstream and downstream impacts as part of its environmental review of natural gas export approvals. DOE now claims that such analysis is not required, but nevertheless points to estimates of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with natural gas exports, which it says show that the use of exported natural gas in Europe and Asia will not increase emissions. As we explain, however, the estimates are fatally flawed because they significantly underestimate methane emissions during natural gas production and improperly fail to account for the rise of renewable energy in overseas markets.

As well as failing to consider key environmental impacts, DOE has also impermissibly segmented natural gas exports approvals from other connected actions, such as the approval of export terminals, which falls under the authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). As we explain, because the DOE and FERC actions are connected, they must be analyzed together in a single environmental impact statement. DOE’s proposed categorical exclusion for export approvals would prevent this and thus inappropriately limit the scope of review under NEPA.

Read our full letter to DOE here.