Environmentalism Needs A New Playbook

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by Tyler Durden
Wednesday, Feb 21, 2024 - 08:30 AM

Authored by Devin Hartman via RealClear Wire,

Environmentalism has become a baffling paradox. The latest indication came when environmental activists convinced the Biden administration to halt exports of liquified natural gas (LNG) so the U.S. could meet climate goals. Left-leaning outlets labeled it a “win for political symbolism, not the climate”, while right-leaning experts called it “impulsive and destructive.” Both are correct. And both caught the scent of a much bigger problem. 

A quick fact check calls the climate merits of curtailing LNG exports into question. Most LNG exports go to Europe, where they have a 41% lifecycle emissions advantage over Russian gas imports. The majority of remaining exports go to Asia, where it heavily displaces coal. Exporting LNG is often a climate winner, not to mention the economic and security benefits for ourselves and our allies. 

Biden’s LNG decision is eerily reminiscent of the Keystone XL pipeline, where politics trumped merit. The environmental movement rallied around Keystone opposition, labeling it “game over” for climate. Yet objective analyses by credible groups like Resources for the Future found no cause for alarmism. Nevertheless, President Obama cited climate concerns in rejecting the pipeline. The “Keystonization” of infrastructure has since made project approvals based on climate red herrings as much as actual environmental impact. 

Why are green-minded presidents making such irrational decisions? Because their influencers prioritize symbolism over results. Symbolism, especially project opposition, is an effective political tool and fundraiser for the environmental movement. But it must quickly be reconciled with policy effectiveness and remain cognizant of tradeoffs. 

The symbolism infliction carries many costs to the economy, security, and sometimes the environment. For example, conventional electric vehicle subsidies increase emissions, exacerbate foreign minerals security risk, and cost taxpayers considerably. Symbolic actions also distract from proper fixes. Take, for example, the unfounded obsession over domestic plastics bans, when global waste management is the effective policy response. By contrast, reducing domestic oil consumption has emissions benefits, but not supply since it is easily replaced, often by dirtier foreign production. This makes symbolic moratoria on oil production environmentally suspect. 

Environmentalists need a new playbook. Many think copying their approach to coal will work for the oil and gas industry. They are wrong. 

The coal industry began a terminal decline last decade thanks primarily to a cheaper substitute: natural gas. Gas did the heavy lifting on coal retirements – more so than environmental rules – and was the backbone of why the U.S. beat the 2020 emissions target of the 2009 Waxman-Markey bill. Renewables now dominate new development but are imperfect substitutes for gas. Reliable energy systems will require the gas system to perform better in cold weather for decades, which requires gas infrastructure enhancements even if we burn less of it. 

This perspective is silently shared by many in the environmental brain trust. I recently spoke with experts at four prominent environmental organizations. All agreed gas has a role to play for decades and that the direction of the emissions effect depends on various circumstances. Some noted gas facility expansion is needed to meet resurgent electric demand and that the failure to augment gas infrastructure in key areas, like the Northeast, amplifies the probability of catastrophic black outs. Concerningly, these experts said they are disallowed from saying so publicly. 

We need the courage to tell it like it is. One example is Neil Chatterjee, a climate leader and former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who summed up the LNG decision poignantly: “[s]ome confused climate activists are asking President Biden to hurt the climate.” Chatterjee, a Republican who supports emissions pricing over mandates, embodies how a return to evidence-based policy would unveil bipartisan alignment.   

Environmentalism has a sweet bipartisan history. Returning to that legacy requires overcoming the sour tribalism of the last decade. Freedom, sunshine, and innovation should headline an environmental reboot. 

Markets are more environmentally motivated than ever but remain hampered by lousy information and outmoded regulation. Transparency initiatives should let the market self-organize and pair with a regulatory overhaul to unleash capitalism’s green thumb. For example, regulatory reform of transmission, power plant interconnection, and permitting hold far more climate benefit than the Inflation Reduction Act. 

Innovation remains an underappreciated third wheel. Freer power markets like Texas, which is now the nation’s clean energy leader, show that renewables can graduate from role player to lead fiddle. But they cannot do it entirely. We need public support for research in clean technologies that firm the output gaps of renewables. 

Mitigating climate change, mass extinction, plastics pollution, and other serious environmental problems are too important for symbolism to hijack the agenda. Progressive leaders are reinserting pragmatism into the environmental agenda, highlighted by the permitting discussion. Conservatives are reestablishing their own brand of environmental leadership that is compatible with economic opportunity. Green liberty is the victorious playbook.  

Devin Hartman is the director of Energy and Environmental Policy at the R Street Institute.