The Paris Agreement seeks to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels to give the planet a decent chance of avoiding the worst outcomes of climate change. To hit this target, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls for reducing carbon emissions by 40-60% by 2030 and reaching net zero emissions by 2050-2070.
A world that’s meeting these goals has no place for the AKLNG project, the state of Alaska’s bid to build an 807-mile pipeline from the North Slope’s gas fields to a facility in Nikiski that will liquify the gas for export to Asia. Building it is currently estimated to require $44 billion, but the real cost is likely much higher.
The financial success of this project, or even its viability, is incompatible with our climate goals. If everything went right for AK LNG, it would begin exporting gas – and begin recovering that $44 billion – in the early-to-mid 2030s. The U.S. Department of Energy has given AKLNG a 30-year export permit, allowing it to export gas into the 2060s, in conflict with the IPCC target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050-2070. AK LNG’s financial imperatives and contractual obligations to export this gas would lock in an estimated 2.7 billion tons of carbon, including 16 million tons — the equivalent of three coal plants — that the project would emit just by operating. By itself, AKLNG would undo just under 3% of the U.S.’s carbon reduction commitment under the Paris Agreement.
Some fossil fuel advocates call natural gas a “transition fuel” that reduces carbon by replacing coal. One day gas itself may be replaced by a slow, gradual transition to renewable energy, but this story is vague about when. Presumably long after today’s gas investors have made their money back. Climate scientists, on the other hand, are not so vague. To be compatible with decarbonization by mid-century, the transition away from gas will need to accelerate dramatically in the 2030s, just when AK LNG intends to enter the market. Through the next two decades, LNG must be on the downward trajectory that coal is on now.
In a world taking real climate action, the AKLNG facilities would become stranded assets before their backers broke even, much less saw profit. But in a world that’s only pretending, the project may stand a chance. With the supposed climate champions of the Biden administration permitting AKLNG, backing it with loan guarantees, and promoting it with the power of the State Department, one has to wonder: which are we living in?