The Biden administration is pausing a decision on whether to approve what would be the largest natural gas export terminal in the United States, a delay that could stretch past the November election and spell trouble for that project and 16 other proposed terminals, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.
The White House is directing the Energy Department to expand its evaluation of the project to consider its impact on climate change, as well as the economy and national security, said these people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss internal deliberations. The Energy Department has never rejected a proposed natural gas project because of its expected environmental impact.
The move comes as Mr. Biden gears up for what is likely to be a contentious re-election campaign. He is courting climate voters, particularly the young activists who helped him win election in 2020 and who have been angered by his administration’s approval last year of the Willow project, an enormous oil drilling operation in Alaska.
It also comes as the United States leads the world in both liquefied natural gas exports and oil and gas production. The country has seven export terminals with five more already under construction.
The project in question, Calcasieu Pass 2, is among 17 additional terminals that have been proposed by the fossil fuel industry.
Still, Republicans and former President Donald J. Trump, who is expected to be his party’s choice to challenge Mr. Biden in November, are sure to try to use any delay in permitting against him, charging that Mr. Biden is hampering American energy.
“This move would amount to a functional ban on new LNG export permits,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “The administration’s war on affordable domestic energy has been bad news for American workers and consumers alike.”
Mr. Trump, who has inaccurately called global warming a “hoax,” has promised to expand fossil fuel production and shred Mr. Biden’s climate agenda. “We’re going to drill, baby drill, right away,” he told voters after he won the Iowa caucuses earlier this month.
Calcasieu Pass 2, or CP2, would dwarf the country’s existing export terminals. The $10 billion project would be situated along a shipping channel that connects the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Charles, La. It would export up to 20 million tons of natural gas per year, increasing the current amount of exported American gas by about 20 percent.
The project first requires approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission before it shifts to the Energy Department for consideration.
The Energy Department is required to weigh whether the export terminal is in “the public interest,” a subjective determination. But now, the White House has requested an additional analysis of the climate impacts of CP2.
Natural gas, which is primarily composed of methane, is cleaner than coal when it is burned. But methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas in the short term, compared with carbon dioxide, and it can leak anywhere along the supply chain, from the production wellhead to processing plants to the stovetop. The process of liquefying gas to make it suitable for transport is incredibly energy intensive as well, creating yet more emissions.
Whatever new criteria is used to evaluate CP2 would be expected to be applied to the other 16 proposed natural gas terminals that are awaiting approval.
Scientists have overwhelmingly said that nations must deeply and quickly cut the emissions from burning gas, oil and coal if humanity is to avoid climate catastrophe. Last month at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai, the United States joined 196 other countries in promising to transition away from fossil fuels.
More than 150 scientists signed a Dec. 19 letter to Mr. Biden, urging him to reject CP2 and the additional proposed facilities. “The magnitude of the proposed build out of LNG over the next several years is staggering,” they wrote. Approving new terminals would “put us on a continued path toward escalating climate chaos,” the letter said.
Given the scientific imperative, experts say that it is reasonable to consider climate impacts before building new gas export terminals.
“So far there is really no requirement to consider the cumulative climate, economic or market impact of all those facilities,” said Ben Cahill, a senior fellow in the energy security and climate change program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan research organization. “And it’s a very valid question.”
A delay of many months could jeopardize the financing for CP2, which is being proposed by Venture Global LNG, a Virginia-based startup whose other gas export terminals have already run into equipment and shipping problems and legal disputes.
That’s exactly the hope of climate activists who launched a social media campaign last fall to urge Mr. Biden to reject CP2.
“We see CP2 as stopping the first fraction of the largest LNG build out to date,” said Alex Haraus, a 25-year-old Colorado social media influencer who has led a TikTok and Instagram campaign aimed at urging young voters to demand that Mr. Biden reject the project. His posts have received about 7 million views on TikTok and Instagram.
Among those who saw the posts were Ali Zaidi and John Podesta, senior advisers to Mr. Biden on climate policy. Mr. Podesta is also a veteran of climate advocacy and presidential campaigns. Mr. Haraus had a Zoom meeting with Mr. Zaidi this week and with Mr. Podesta last month to discuss the project, one of several meetings about CP2 between White House climate officials and environmental groups.
Climate activists have compared their CP2 campaign with a successful effort waged over a decade ago to persuade President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
In that campaign, the climate activist Bill McKibben was able to transform an obscure oil pipeline project that had been on track for routine federal approval into a high profile symbol of Mr. Obama’s commitment to fighting climate change.
The Obama administration found that the pipeline was not “in the public interest” because of the emissions associated with producing the oil that would be moved through the pipeline.
Mr. McKibben has also taken a large role in organizing the CP2 campaign.
“Keystone is a great example of how this can work,” Mr. Haraus said. “And we absolutely will reward or punish him on this decision,” he added, referring to Mr. Biden.
Within the White House, there is little division over the decision to delay CP2, in part because it is not seen as a major energy security issue, said people familiar with the discussion. That’s because the United States is already producing and exporting so much gas. That capacity is set to nearly double over the next four years, making the need for CP2 less urgent.
American dominance of the natural gas market is a recent tale. Until 2016, the United States did not export any natural gas. But the expansion of hydraulic fracking translated into tremendous growth in natural gas supplies and a new export industry.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, the United States redirected exports from Asia to Europe in order to help allies that had been reliant on Russian gas.
But Republicans, oil and gas companies, and some energy analysts warn that even the glut of natural gas exports may not be enough to prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin from wielding natural gas supplies as a weapon.
“No one hates U.S. L.N.G. more than Vladimir Putin,” said Daniel Yergin, the vice chairman of S & P Global and an oil industry historian.
Speaking this week at an energy conference, Mike Sommers, the president of the American Petroleum Institute, which represents oil and gas companies, said curtailing the construction of future terminals would be damaging to American allies, “particularly those in Europe who are desperate for American natural gas.”