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Biden's pause on LNG exports aims to consolidate climate voters

U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House

In recent years, the United States has witnessed a remarkable transformation in its position as a liquified natural gas (LNG) exporter. From virtually no exports in 2014, the country has become the world's leading gas exporter by 2022. Buoyed by the Biden Administration's support, the US has been actively building new LNG terminals with the aim of doubling its export capacity by 2027.

However, a significant development occurred on January 26, 2024, when the Biden administration announced a 'pause' in permitting new LNG exports. This abrupt reversal has left many wondering about the reasons behind this decision and its timing. Upon closer examination, it appears that President Biden's motivation behind this move is to consolidate support from climate-conscious voters ahead of the upcoming presidential elections in November.

While climate change is undeniably a global issue that demands international cooperation, the formulation of climate policies is predominantly influenced by domestic considerations. This is because these policies inevitably create winners and losers, and they often evoke strong emotional responses from both proponents and opponents. In election years, politicians strategically take positions on high-profile issues such as climate change, the economy, or national security to differentiate themselves from their rivals.

Given that US Presidential elections are ultimately determined by a select few swing states, with winners taking all electoral votes (Nebraska and Maine being exceptions), candidates place great importance on these states. As the previous two elections have demonstrated, with narrow margins of victory, President Biden undoubtedly assessed the potential benefits and costs of the gas export pause.

By supporting this pause, President Biden secures the approval of climate voters who view it as a crucial step in combating global warming, primarily due to concerns about methane fugitive emissions associated with gas liquefaction and transportation. However, he risks angering fossil fuel supporters who see the pause as jeopardizing jobs and energy security. Ultimately, Biden's decision suggests that he believes the electoral gains from appealing to climate voters outweigh the potential losses among fossil fuel communities and certain blue-collar voters.

To understand the gas export pause more fully, it is essential to consider three key voting blocs: Biden supporters, Biden opponents, and swing voters. Climate-conscious supporters of Biden yearn for a comprehensive approach to tackling climate change. While they may not be directly affected by the gas export pause, as their socio-economic status often differs markedly from that of the fossil fuel workforce, their satisfaction with Biden's climate commitments is crucial to his success. Failing to appease these voters could result in reduced turnout or even a shift toward third-party candidates, which could cost Biden the election.

On the other hand, Biden opponents, particularly those in states like Louisiana, which would see the establishment of new LNG export terminals, have voiced strong opposition to the gas export pause. However, Biden can afford to overlook their concerns given that Louisiana is a predominantly conservative state where Biden only secured 40% of the votes in the 2020 elections.

The most interesting dynamic emerges in swing states like Pennsylvania, where the gas-fracking industry plays a significant role. Biden won Pennsylvania by a narrow margin in 2020, largely due to strong support from urban areas. Nevertheless, the gas export pause risks alienating the fracking constituency and potentially jeopardizing Biden's support in the state. To navigate this challenge, Biden likely hopes that a higher turnout of climate voters in Pennsylvania's urban areas will offset any decreased support in regions reliant on fracking. Additionally, he may attempt to bolster his standing in the fracking country by implementing measures to address their concerns, such as blocking the sale of Pittsburgh-based US Steel to Nippon, which has faced opposition from labor unions.

While Biden may face some backlash from European countries and Japan due to concerns about reduced US gas supplies, the reality is that the US is poised to double its export capacity by 2027. Therefore, there is no imminent danger of decreased gas supplies to Europe. Additionally, given the current stalemate in Ukraine and the potential reemergence of Trump in November, European countries are unlikely to exert significant pressure on the US, as they prefer for Biden to focus his political capital on managing his vocal pro-climate domestic constituency.

From President Biden's perspective, the gas export pause represents a politically shrewd move. It demonstrates his willingness to incur political costs, both domestically and internationally, in order to prioritize the climate agenda. However, it is important to note that this pause is temporary and could be lifted if Biden secures reelection in November – a scenario that a potential Trump victory would also yield. Even if the pause were to become permanent, importing countries could still turn to alternative gas sources, such as Qatar or Australia. Moreover, in the absence of affordable gas options, some of these countries might resort to burning more coal for electricity generation, underscoring the broader challenge of reducing fossil fuel dependence and combating climate change.

In conclusion, President Biden's decision to pause new LNG exports aligns with his efforts to consolidate support from climate-conscious voters ahead of the November elections. By prioritizing his climate commitments, Biden aims to appease this important voting bloc, even if it risks provoking opposition from the fossil fuel industry and potential backlash from international partners. However, it remains to be seen how this pause will ultimately impact the broader climate challenge and the complex interplay between energy policy, economic interests, and environmental concerns.

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