A mix of celebration and scrutiny has followed Biden’s announcement of a pause on LNG export approvals. Whether this dramatic policy shift was spurred more by dogged activism, desperate vote-seeking, saturated markets and pissed off gas execs, or simply by resource depletion, it is a win for frontline communities and the environmental justice movement.

By Alexandria Shaner, Z Network

“We are coming together to stop one of the largest fossil fuel buildouts in the world,” said a spokesperson for the #StopLNG campaign. The fossil fuel industry has been planning more than 20 new liquified natural gas export facilities across the Gulf of Mexico — the cumulative emissions from these projects would be equivalent to 675 coal fired power plants or the entire European Union. ​

A huge coalition campaigned against LNG. Including, from top left clockwise: Vessel Project (Photo: Jamie Henn), Climate Defiance, Extinction Rebellion DC, and Third Act.
A huge coalition campaigned against LNG. Including, from top left clockwise: Vessel Project (Photo: Jamie Henn), Climate Defiance, Extinction Rebellion DC, and Third Act.

But this project won’t be going forward — at least not for now.

After decades of organizing from frontline communities across the U.S., especially in the Gulf Coast where a majority of these projects have been concentrated, a large coalition came together to take the fight directly to Washington D.C.

Three days of rallies and large-scale civil disobedience were being organized for Feb. 6-8 at the Department of Energy to pressure the Biden Administration to stop approving new LNG export facilities, a key strategic component for stopping the buildout. Over 1,000 people participated in nonviolent direct action training and planned to risk arrest.

But just days before the disruption was due to begin, Biden made headlines by announcing a pause on all LNG export approvals and the beginning of a process for incorporating climate and environmental justice harms into future decision making.

The initial reaction was universal joy, with everyone from giant NGOs, to frontline communities, youth movements, and elders celebrating the announcement. After years of relentless campaigning, petition delivering, and pressure on Congress for precisely this decision, here was a victory that felt well-earned. Climate Defiance, who have been hounding D.C.’s oil-friendly elite, called it “the most significant move any US President has ever made on stopping fossil fuels.”

Leading up to Biden’s announcement, a broad climate justice coalition has been winning victories and movement building. Last September, the March to End Fossil Fuels mobilized over 75,000 people into the streets of New York City, combined with 700 smaller simultaneous actions around the world. Hundreds were arrested for nonviolent direct action in New York before and after the mass march. Though this was not a policy victory, it had a political impact and helped solidify the coalition that set its sights on LNG.

Extinction Rebellion D.C., which has been engaged in a campaign to Electrify D.C., sounded a note of caution, calling the win a “ray of hope” in a long, difficult fight with an industry that has its claws deeply embedded in the country. “There are still eight LNG export facilities in operation and 10 more already approved, setting the U.S. on a path to double the volume of LNG exported by 2028.”

Speaking to the long term and interconnected nature of the struggle against the fossil fuel industry, Abby Shepard, press spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion D.C. explained, “Here in D.C., our work to stop the local gas utility’s $4.5 billion methane gas pipeline replacement project is intricately connected with the push to stop LNG. Washington Gas uses the same lies to gaslight residents into staying hooked on gas as the Venture Global execs pushing LNG. The more we can be out in our local communities telling the truth about our crisis and the harms of gas, the stronger our collective movement will be to kick methane gas out of our system for good.”

Further scrutiny into industry and political motives behind this potential turning point in climate policy has revealed both reasons for caution and potential strategies forward. First, it is doubtful that the wildly unpopular Biden administration’s announcement coincides with the start of the presidential election cycle by accident. Activists have an opportunity to keep the pressure on, demanding that this be the start of a new chapter in climate policy rather than a mere gesture to win youth and climate voters.

Zooming out, the Biden administration’s extreme resistance to public pressure to call for a ceasefire in Gaza after months of massive protest and civil disobedience should make us question the motives behind his recent shift on LNG exports. Contrary to the official narrative that Biden is suddenly (and selectively) listening to activist outcry, there is evidence that this policy turnaround may have more to do with natural limits on resources than with public pressure.

Three days before Biden’s LNG announcement, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a program of the Department of Energy, revealed that ​​the country’s gas supply is in terminal decline. Production growth of shale gas, which accounts for 82 percent of U.S. dry gas production, is slowing. Instead of having an almost infinite amount of natural gas, as many believe, the U.S. may be running out of gas.

Energy consultants stated that plans for 17 new LNG export terminals “could not come at a worse time,” and explicitly advised the Department of Energy to “review and update its evaluations of future gas supply before approving any more export applications.” In light of this information, it is clear that Biden’s announcement could very well be an attempt to spin news of hard limits on resources into a popular media stunt.

While applying pressure through activism has undoubtedly had effects and remains crucial — it would be a mistake to interpret Biden’s turn around as an outcome of the democratic process. “Biden’s plans to dramatically expand the country’s LNG facilities over the past years has shown time and time again he is not a climate candidate, but an energy-dominance candidate, more concerned with keeping the U.S.’s grip on the world order than transitioning towards a sustainable future,” cautioned climate corruption journalist, Rachel Donald, in a recent article for Planet: Critical. “His administration’s sudden U-turn likely is due to shale production peaking than a sudden interest in the alarm raised by activists.”

There is more evidence that this decision cannot be interpreted as the Biden administration positioning itself against fossil fuel industry interests. Inside energy markets, this pause in new approvals might essentially be irrelevant due to so much new LNG supply entering the global market over the next two years from the U.S., Qatar, Canada and perhaps Mozambique. According to Seb Kennedy of Energy Flux, Biden’s decision, “was an easy way to make headlines that placate the climate contingent of the electorate without endangering market liquidity.”

Behind the scenes, fossil fuel industry machinations have also played their part. Earlier in January, Venture Global, the project developer behind CP2 (the largest of the “paused” terminals), told a U.S. regulator that it could not meet its contracts to provide LNG to several major customers, yet it had already sold more than 200 cargoes of gas into the (higher priced) spot market. Among Venture Global’s defrauded customers are energy giants Shell, BP, Galp, Edison, Polish state energy firm Orlen, Spain’s Repsol, and others — powerful enemies to make.

In a gross understatement, JP Morgan analysts commented on the case in a note to their clients that Venture Global’s “real risk is fewer companies being interested in doing business with it.” As we have seen time and again, fossil fuel execs play like mob bosses: “CP2 is the scapegoat but Venture Global has trashed its own reputation. Buyers will not go near CP2 without cast iron assurances that this won’t happen again, and I expect a fair few executives in the LNG space will gleefully welcome CP2’s demise,” Kennedy said. “You might say Venture Global deserved a comeuppance and Biden is doing [the industry’s] bidding. All in all, it is business as usual in the LNG world.”

As organizers seek out and digest the full spectrum of this landscape surrounding the LNG pause, how can we use what we’ve learned? Whether Biden’s dramatic policy shift was spurred more by dogged activism, desperate vote-seeking, saturated markets and pissed off gas execs, or simply by resource depletion, it demonstrates weakness in one of the most powerful cogs of the global fossil-capital system. That weakness is worth celebrating, understanding, and pushing for further gains towards new horizons. The cracks are where the light shines through.

Strategizing about next steps, there is more reason to center frontline communities and to link activism with positive, systemic vision for increased equity and wellbeing within planetary bounds. After all, though immediate harm reduction is essential, activists are not just asking for the system to (please) work better. This past month is a case study showing that the system is working just as it is built to work. Fossil fuel companies and politicians will continue to pursue power and profit over all else, while the mainstream media spins and weaves enabling tales — this megamachine has to go.

That’s why we’re on the path of organizing for new systems, where even under a cloud of sinister motivations, this is a win for LNG impacted communities, for movement building, and for direct action. It is also an invitation to keep going.

This article is co-published by ZNetwork.orgWaging Nonviolence, & Campaign Nonviolence. Condensed versions also appeared in the February editions of ZMagazine and the Extinction Rebellion global newsletter.

Alexandria Shaner is a sailor, writer, & organizer. She is a staff member of ZNetwork.org and active with Extinction RebellionCaracol DSA, the Women’s Rights & Empowerment Network, and RealUtopia.org.