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Natural gas exports could be the next big environmental fight in the US

LNG tanker. Creative Commons: Shell, 2011

LNG tanker. Creative Commons: Shell, 2011

With plans to fast-track natural gas export facilities under consideration in Congress, more than a few observers are wondering if the fight over fracked gas exports might be the next Keystone XL-style battle for the environmental movement.

On Tuesday, a coalition of environmental groups including the Sierra Club, Food and Water Watch, and 350.org, sent a letter to the White House urging President Obama to order an Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Cove Point facility in Lusby, Maryland.

Dominion Resources, the electric utility that currently owns the existing Cove Point terminal, has filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Comission (FERC) for a project that would pour an estimated $3.8 billion into Cove Point’s expansion.

In their letter, the environmental leaders urged President Obama to order FERC to complete an Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed expansion. The coalition also called upon Obama to take heed of the climate impacts of ramping up domestic gas production.

Investing in large-scale natural gas infrastructure would set economic dynamics in place that would likely lock the United States into fossil fuel dependency for decades.

Meanwhile, a gold rush mentality among natural gas producers and exporters threatens to do just that by erecting a policy framework that will quickly outlive its utility. Fossil fuel interests, fueled by the recent fracking gas boom in the Bakken and Marcellus shale plays in the US and by high demand in Asian markets, see new export facilities as a gateway to quick profits.

Although natural gas has been heralded by some as a so-called ‘bridge-fuel,’ in reality the continued extraction and combustion of natural gas will delay the development of clean energy sources and accelerate an ongoing climate crisis, which is already affecting many regions of the world through coastal erosion and extreme weather events.

As environmental groups wait out the final stages of the Keystone XL approval process, some of that fight’s major players, including Bill McKibben of 350.org, have shifted some of their attention to natural gas issues.

On a conference call on Tuesday, McKibben said:

We were told when the Keystone fight came up, there wasn’t a chance in the world. People put up a big fight. Fights change political realities.

The fight has already begun.

In Maryland, there has been sustained citizen activism has surrounding the Cove Point facility. In February an estimated 500 people rallied in the state’s capital to protest the climate impacts of the project and the potential health consequences that could follow an uptick in fracking.

Since then a handful of protesters have been arrested for protesting the project on two separate occasions, and a public hearing on Cove Point’s future drew thousands. Despite a heavy union presence at the hearing, over two-thirds of speakers opposed the expansion.

With export facilities being considered along the Gulf Coast, as well as in British Columbia and Alaska, it might not be long before the fight against natural gas exports takes the national, or even international, stage.

For now, though, the fate of Cove Point is uncertain and the impact of the letter—which itself might serve as an important test case for the movement—remains yet to be seen.

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