Big Oil’s Favorite Democrats Are Fighting Biden’s New Climate Policy

Fossil fuel–backed Democrats want to use unverifiable “certified gas” schemes to undermine one of Joe Biden’s most important climate moves: pausing permits for new liquefied natural gas terminals.

The Cheniere Liquefaction facility in Corpus Christi, Texas, on December 4, 2023. (Mark Felix / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Some of Big Oil’s favorite Democrats are working to help their fossil fuel donors undercut one of President Joe Biden’s most consequential climate moves by reclassifying the companies’ dirty gas with “cleaner” branding.

In January, the Energy Department surprised the climate community and fossil fuel industry alike by pausing permits for new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals while it revisits whether expanding gas exports is in the public interest.

The United States is the world’s largest natural gas exporter, adding extra consequence to the development. The paused projects, which liquefy and transport gas to overseas markets, are projected to add more than 340 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution to the atmosphere each year if they are completed.

In May, eight corporate-friendly House Democrats called on the Biden administration to lift the pause on all liquefied natural gas export permit approvals and allow third-party verification of methane emissions to instead safeguard growth in the gas-export market.

Four of the Democrats — Reps. Jim Costa (D-CA), Lou Correa (D-CA), Mary Peltola (D-AK), and Marc Veasey (D-TX) — have received more than $1.6 million in oil and gas industry donations throughout their congressional careers. Costa alone received $772,159 from the fossil fuel industry, with Chevron one of his top donors. The other four lawmakers — Reps. Don Davis (D-NC), Jared Golden (D-ME), Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D-WA), and Susan Wild (D-PA) — received more than $300,000 from the energy and natural resources industry.

Costa, Correa, Peltola, Veasey, Golden, and Gluesenkamp were also among fourteen House Democrats who signed on to letters to Biden opposing the terminal pause or voted with Republicans to relaunch natural gas processing and exports.

The offices of all eight lawmakers did not respond to a request for comment.

The lawmakers are effectively asking the Biden administration to carve out an exemption for exports of “certified gas,” or gas produced by companies whose operations have been assessed by a third party and deemed “lower emitting.” The lawmakers cited a comparable proposal made earlier this spring by the Progressive Policy Institute, a corporate-aligned think tank that in 2022 took $250,000 from the major US natural gas producer EQT Corporation and more than $50,000 from the Canadian pipeline company TC Energy Corporation.

Companies like EQT, which calls itself the largest producer of certified natural gas in the United States, could benefit enormously if the Energy Department allows the use of certification programs in a new permitting process. For such operators, the appeal of gas certification has grown in response to the public’s increasing awareness of how substantial methane leaks at every part of the natural gas supply chain (pipeline-grade natural gas is up to 98 percent methane) drastically reduce and may even eliminate the emissions-reduction benefits of using gas instead of coal.

But gas certification is no panacea for these harms. Though about one-third of US gas production is now purportedly certified as “lower-emitting,” methane emissions from the sector continue to increase. Global methane pollution has steeply risen over the past few years, accelerating a decades-long increase and shows no signs of slowing, with the global gas market projected to grow 50 percent by 2029.

As methane pollution has emerged as one of the greatest threats to the oil and gas industry’s reputation, the industry has strategized around how to downplay its severity. A recent joint report from the Senate Budget Committee and House Oversight Committee, based on thousands of subpoenaed corporate documents, exposed how fossil fuel companies internally recognized the severity of methane’s impact while developing messaging strategies for protecting gas in the long-term energy mix beyond 2050.

“Gas doesn’t support climate goals when you take methane emissions into account,” the oil and gas conglomerate BP acknowledged on confidential internal slides published in the government’s report. Publicly, however, BP claims that, “Natural gas has an important role to play in the energy transition now and for decades to come.”

Certified Gas Is the Same Old Gas

Gas certification is currently a voluntary market in which third-party certifiers — the big three being MiQ, Project Canary, and Equitable Origin — are hired by oil and gas companies to assess the amount of methane leaking or released from their upstream production sites and grade their methane intensity. (Gas giant Cheniere is one exception, as it came up with its own opaque certification protocol.)

Naturally, the gas producers who do the most methane flaring and venting aren’t interested in paying for certification on their dirtiest wells, as they’d get bad grades. The data backs this up: 78 percent of the sites analyzed by MiQ are awarded As, and none have yet received the worst grades — Ds, Es, or Fs.

The certifiers all have their own processes and allowed technologies, and none of them publicly disclose their data, making it impossible in most cases to independently verify their conclusions. Certification is effectively an extra credit opportunity for gas producers who want a reputational boost (and a chance to charge premiums) for claiming to do what recently finalized federal methane regulations would optimally push all gas producers to do: reduce methane leaks and releases.

The gas industry’s use of certification schemes to paper over concerns about the methane intensity of liquefied natural gas is fairly recent. In 2020, the French government asked French energy giant Engie to hold off on purchasing liquefied natural gas from Cheniere over concerns about its environmental footprint, sending US gas producers scrambling for a way to rebrand their gas as less polluting.

Engie has since returned to the table, buying gas that Cheniere has internally certified as “lower carbon.” Cheniere is also apparently employing its internal certification program at its liquefied natural gas terminals at Sabine Pass and Corpus Christi in Texas — although, as of 2023, it told the Energy Department that its “technical findings are not yet complete” and that “liquefaction terminals are large, complex facilities with thousands of individual components that process gas.”

Ultimately, these certification strategies are designed to help operators keep extracting and producing gas, despite the unequivocal fact that even so-called “low emissions” gas production must substantially drop in the coming decades in order to avoid the worst climate outcomes. Further damning is that these companies’ emissions reduction claims are likely inaccurate.

In an effort to verify certifiers’ emissions reduction claims, Earthworks, an environmental nonprofit, sent surveyors with optical gas imaging cameras to drilling sites around Colorado monitored by third-party certifier Project Canary. This kind of cross-checking is only feasible in Colorado because it is one of the few states that requires oil and gas producers to monitor and report their upstream emissions.

The Earthworks surveyors observed twenty-two significant pollution events, such as plumes of uncombusted gas rising up from drilling pads, across seventy-seven surveys conducted between May and November 2022. But none of these events appeared on the operators’ on-site continuous emissions monitors, according to what the drilling companies reported to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Based on these and other findings, in February Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) led a group of senators urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the emissions-reduction claims that certified gas producers are making and to publish information on what constitutes greenwashing in oil and gas marketing claims in the next edition of the agency’s environmental marketing guidelines.

It’s also not clear what, if any, impact gas certification is having on reducing emissions in US gas production. According to analysis of energy-sector data from environmental research and advocacy organization Oil Change International, “Data reveals that US oil and gas sector methane emissions are rising in lockstep with rising gas production, contradicting the industry’s own reports that methane intensity is decreasing, and revealing companies may underreport by as much as 95 percent.”

Though some gas industry players like to make claims about American liquefied natural gas being the cleanest in the world, to the limited extent that scientists can assess the matter, the nation’s oil and gas industry is in the middle of the pack for cleaning up its supply-chain emissions, ranking behind eighteen other countries for the proportion of gas that’s leaked.

The Energy Department’s Dalliance With Certification

On January 26, the Energy Department announced that it would pause reviewing applications to export gas while it worked to update the economic and environmental analyses it uses to determine whether gas exports are in the public interest.

The Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, which regulates US gas imports and exports, is working in tandem with two national laboratories to update the public-interest evaluation. The analysis will look at how liquefied natural gas exports impact domestic gas prices, communities living beside liquefaction sites, greenhouse gas emissions, and global energy security. Industry outrage toward the pause has been vocal and amplified by its allies in Congress through a rash of oversight hearings, letters, and op-eds.

The Fossil Energy and Carbon Management Office has also been evaluating natural gas certification programs. Last year, as part of a request for information from the liquefied natural gas industry on ways to reduce emissions, the department asked what role gas certification could play in the process — and the industry’s answers are illuminating.

The American Petroleum Institute, the powerful oil and gas lobbying group that unsuccessfully petitioned the Energy Department to lift the gas export permitting pause, told the department that it supported the development of voluntary certified gas programs to “inform markets” for gas exports but opposed “prematurely imposing shortsighted requirements on US producers.”

Two major exporters, Commonwealth LNG and Golden Pass LNG, indicated that they planned to purchase certified gas themselves. Gas producer Williams Companies and for-profit gas certifier Project Canary both argued that gas certification programs would help the United States gain a competitive advantage in international markets and facilitate long-term export contracts.

Nonprofit gas certifier MiQ listed several “fatal flaws” of current emissions accounting frameworks, such as relying on inaccurate estimates that undercount methane emissions, using black-box metrics that third parties can’t verify, and employing verifiers with financial or reputational interests in the outcome of their verification.

But MiQ still urged the Energy Department to endorse certification programs that “encompass life cycle certification, uses independent third-party operational auditors, uses a digital registry, and certifies on a facility-basis.” MiQ recently unveiled its own framework for certifying the gas export supply chain.

Just weeks before the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management issued this request for information, its head, Brad Crabtree, met with several gas industry players at the annual oil and gas industry summit to discuss a possible federal endorsement of a certified gas standard.

Shortly afterward, Crabtree indicated that his department wasn’t going to endorse a gas certification standard at that time.

He instead elevated the efforts of the international working group he is leading, which intends to create a “credible framework” among countries that import and export gas to “help provide suppliers, buyers, investors, and policymakers the information they need to help drive continuous reductions in greenhouse gas emissions over time across the international natural gas supply chain.”

The Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management did not respond to a request for comment.

Crabtree has a long history of credulity toward carbon capture technologies — which, despite decades and billions of dollars in investment, have failed to become effective or scalable. Now Crabtree will consider the efforts of lawmakers like Costa who seek to secure a lifeline for the polluting gas industry by spinning it as “cleaner.”

Meanwhile, US gas export capacity tripled in the past six years, and is set to double again by 2030, even if the contested pause on new export terminals were made permanent. Last week, the UN secretary-general said that global emissions must drop 9 percent each year by 2030 in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.