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The U.S. wants to cut its own emissions, but plans to keep exporting fossil fuels

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden wants Congress to do more to reduce climate-warming emissions. But even the most aggressive plan doesn't include a major source of them - fossil fuel exports. And the U.S. plans to keep sending oil and natural gas to other countries for decades to come. As NPR's Jeff Brady reports, that is getting scrutiny ahead of a climate summit in Glasgow next week.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: After the oil supply crisis in the 1970s, the U.S. banned crude oil exports for 40 years. A fracking-fueled boom ended production worries, and the ban was lifted six years ago. Kassie Siegel at the Center for Biological Diversity says it came at an ironic time.

KASSIE SIEGEL: The ban was lifted in December of 2015, actually while many of us were in Paris at the 2015 climate talks.

BRADY: Under the Paris framework, countries set targets to reduce their climate-warming emissions. But fossil fuel exporting countries, like the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Norway, do not have to count emissions produced by their exports. Instead, the country that ultimately burns the fuel counts them. But Siegel says if the U.S. stopped exporting fossil fuels, they might never get drilled or mined in the first place. She wants President Biden to bring back the export ban.

SIEGEL: The president can declare a national emergency and then reinstate the crude oil export ban on the year-by-year basis.

BRADY: Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm recently suggested that possibility, more because of high oil prices than climate concerns. A new ban would mobilize powerful interests. Here's an ad from the petroleum industry back in 2015.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Who loves the ban on U.S. crude oil exports? Iran and Russia - not exactly our best friends.

BRADY: And now, the industry's argument remains the same. Frank Macchiarola with the American Petroleum Institute says exports are good for the U.S.

FRANK MACCHIAROLA: Lifting the export ban has been a real driver in enhancing our energy security, our economic strength and continuing our energy leadership around the world.

BRADY: Last year, oil shipped to places like China and India brought in about $50 billion. Also, big business these days - natural gas exports. Much of it is liquefied and transported on ships. Chris Smith, with Houston-based Cheniere Energy, says his company's gas helps fast-growing economies transition away from even dirtier coal.

CHRIS SMITH: Power generated with LNG from the United States, exported, has up to a 57% lower greenhouse gas intensity in China than low-coal power.

BRADY: Still, turning natural gas into a liquid requires a lot of energy. It has to be super-cooled to -260 degrees. In some cases, studies show liquefied natural gas is barely better than coal when it comes to climate-warming emissions. Amanda Levin at Natural Resources Defense Council says there's another option - renewable energy.

AMANDA LEVIN: The U.S. can help countries that are still moving to expand electricity to skip that transition and move straight towards that clean energy future that the U.S. itself is working to achieve.

BRADY: The International Energy Agency says to meet climate goals, countries must stop planning for new fossil fuel projects that add harmful emissions. Levin wants federal regulators that approved gas export terminals to apply a climate test and reject projects that don't meet Paris Agreement goals.

LEVIN: So I do believe it is possible to pass that test. I do not think most projects would.

BRADY: Even without U.S. action, some importing countries are developing climate tests of their own. Last year, a French gas company backed out of a deal to buy natural gas from Texas because of the high greenhouse gas emissions associated with drilling and fracking there. That's a start, say environmentalists. But to meet the huge climate challenge, they say the U.S. also should start limiting its own fossil fuel exports.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.