SOME BUILDING projects may be shovel-ready. Others are shovel-desperate: they are reasonable proposals that make economic sense and boast private backers but are being slowed or blocked by interest groups leaning on the government.
One that belongs in the second category is a plan to convert a natural gas import plant, an expensive facility in Cove Point, Md., that’s sitting idle, into one that can handle exports to gas-hungry Japan and India. The Energy Department approved the plan last week, but in Baltimore on Tuesday, a coalition of environmentalists and citizens groups promised to prevent the project from getting the 60 or so additional signoffs it needs. They should find a better use for their time.
According to projections distributed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the price of natural gas at Cove Point next month will be $3.22. The price in Japan will be $15.35. The economic opportunity is obvious. True, liquefying and transporting American gas on tankers will push up the price for Asian buyers, but it still will be an attractive option. High transport costs limit how much gas American companies will be able to sell abroad, so, contrary to a major argument from critics of the project, domestic gas prices will stay low. American manufacturers would have an edge against overseas competitors who have to pay shipping costs for access to cheap U.S. natural gas. The bottom line, according to a recent study commissioned by the Energy Department, is that allowing natural gas exports would result in net benefits to the country in every scenario analysts considered.
Though environmentalists cite a range of concerns about the project, the big one is that they oppose fracking, the drilling technique used to obtain natural gas trapped in shale rock formations, and anything that encourages the practice. But natural gas burns cleaner than coal and could aid the transition to a greener economy. The fracking business calls for serious regulation, not unsparing opposition. It’s true that natural gas that is liquefied and shipped abroad leaves a bigger emissions footprint than that which stays in this country. That’s all the more reason to regulate the emissions at liquefaction facilities like Cove Point instead of refusing to supply countries such as Japan, which are desperate for fossil fuels — and will readily use coal, which is far more harmful, if natural gas isn’t available.
The Energy Department was right to approve Cove Point, and it would be right to okay other projects like it in the future. Environmentalists, meanwhile, would be more productive if they took all the energy they’re spending in their crusade against natural gas and put it into pushing for reasonable fracking regulations and a smart greenhouse-gas policy.