The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Energy Department says gas permit promotes ‘molecules of freedom’

Trump administration proclaims political benefits of gas exports

The Asia Vision LNG carrier ship sits docked at the Cheniere Energy terminal in Sabine Pass, Texas. (Lindsey Janies/Bloomberg)

The Energy Department announced the approval of a liquefied natural gas project in Texas, saying it would allow “molecules of U.S. freedom to be exported to the world.”

The department said the permit for the expansion of the Freeport, Texas facility “is critical to spreading freedom gas throughout the world.”

The language drew wry responses on social media.

“Personally, I don’t think this goes far enough,” Jason Bordoff, founding director of Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy, wrote on Twitter. He urged the Energy Information Administration to “change its monthly data metric from mcf (million cubic feet) to musf (molecules of US freedom).”

Another tweeter asked whether the administration would treat another hydrocarbon gas, propylene, the same as methane. “Or will some molecules be more free than others?”

Still another wondered how the department felt about “free radicals,” another type of molecule or atom.

It wasn’t the first time the Trump administration and others have linked U.S. exports of natural gas to political freedom in other parts of the world, especially places like Lithuania and Poland, which both rely on natural gas purchased from Russia.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018, Energy Secretary Rick Perry used the phrase, “exporting freedom,” to describe growing gas exports. “The United States is not just exporting energy, we’re exporting freedom,” Perry said in an interview with Fox Business’s “Mornings with Maria.”

Tuesday’s announcement quoted Under Secretary of Energy Mark W. Menezes saying that “increasing export capacity from the Freeport LNG project is critical to spreading freedom gas throughout the world by giving America’s allies a diverse and affordable source of clean energy.”

The “molecules of U.S. freedom” was attributed to Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steven Winberg. The department said that U.S. LNG export capacity, currently 5 billion cubic feet a day, will double by the end of 2020.

Bordoff said in an interview that while the phrase is “somewhat bizarre,” it contains a “kernel of truth” because U.S. natural gas exports have provided more energy security for Europe and undercut Russian pricing leverage.

But he added, “the impact of U.S. LNG exports on the global market after government permits are issued is one that depends on market forces and private sector decisions and this administration, in the spirit of promoting ‘freedom gas,’ has often pressured Europe to buy our gas instead of Russia’s gas.”

“I worry about the extent to which rhetoric like this risks politicizing a commodity whose very benefits derive from the fact that it is market-driven,” Bordoff said.