Jan 29, 2024 - Energy & Environment

Biden's LNG pause tees up pre-election risks

Photo illustration of Joe Biden with two liquid natural gas tankers behind him

Photo Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

President Biden jolted the energy and climate worlds by pausing liquefied natural gas export approvals, and in doing so stirred up several political and business risks ahead of the 2024 election.

The big picture: The Energy Department announced on Friday it would freeze new permits as officials reassess the climate, energy security and market effects.

Why it matters: The decision has already become part of Trump vs. Biden, the sequel. On Friday, the former president and presumptive GOP nominee released a statement bashing the decision.

  • Donald Trump also vowed to approve new projects "on my very first day back" during a campaign rally Saturday.

Capitol Hill probes are already gearing up, with an unhappy Joe Manchin, the Senate's Energy Committee chairman, vowing a hearing in coming weeks.

  • Expect oversight from House Republicans, too.
  • There's little chance Congress can thwart Biden, but Capitol Hill critics will look to put the White House on the defensive (Check out Axios Pro: Energy Policy this afternoon for new details on the Capitol Hill outlook).

Context: The freeze won't stop the U.S. export surge thanks to new projects authorized and under construction. The DOE points out that export capacity is already slated to double over the next few years.

  • Still, some analysts see near-term commercial consequences, given that buyers look to secure supplies far in advance.
  • A Center for Strategic and International Studies primer notes that gas buyers "will turn their attention from projects now in limbo" to the U.S. projects already given the green light.
  • "The decision could also aid other LNG suppliers, such as Qatar, that are seeking to lock up their own commercial deals," it adds.

Yes, but: Specifics are in short supply. The White House and DOE have divulged little about how they'll undertake the probe, what sources they'll consider, and so forth.

  • Documents thus far have largely offered high-level information and devoted lots of space to messaging about the move.

What's next: The battle could head to court. Nobody has announced a case yet (to my knowledge), and this isn't formal regulation of the sort that's commonly litigated.

  • But attorney Scott Segal of the firm Bracewell points to state-led court battles over Biden's attempted pause on oil and gas leasing early in his term.
  • While different statutes were in play there, "the regulated community is still owed the full measure of administrative due process and a predictable business environment," said Segal, whose firm represents industry clients.
  • "Court action is highly likely in this case," he said via email.

What they're saying: A progressive private equity watchdog called the pause a warning to pension funds and other investors with exposure to LNG.

  • "With delays in issuing DOE permits, many of these proposed LNG terminals may not get built, despite hundreds of millions in pension capital tied up in them," Nichole Heil of the Private Equity Stakeholder Project said in a statement.
  • "We encourage all investors to seriously consider the financial risks of having their capital tied up in these terminals," adds Heil, whose group opposes LNG on climate grounds.

Meanwhile, major business groups in the U.S., Europe and Japan released an open letter to President Biden.

  • It touts LNG's energy security role and environmental record, adding that failure to approve export authorizations "would send a troubling signal to allies, investors, and energy markets that could reverberate for many years to come."
  • The letter — from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, BusinessEurope, and the Japan Business Federation — shows how the policy faces business sector opposition well beyond the oil industry.
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