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The U.S. is the world’s leading producer of natural gas, pumping around 96-billion cubic feet a day. In the first four months of the year, it exported 11.5-billion cu ft/d of gas in the form of LNG, three quarters of which went to Europe.Keith Srakocic/The Associated Press

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Over the roar of hydraulic fracturing machinery, the boss of the U.S.’s biggest natural gas producer weaves through a gaggle of foreign diplomats, sprinkling fine grains of sand into their hands.

Kitted out in company-branded hard hat and shirt, Toby Rice, chief executive officer of EQT Corp., is in sales mode as he glad-hands dignitaries in the Pennsylvania sunshine.

He has bussed European officials from countries including Poland, Hungary, Greece and the Netherlands 230 miles (370 kilometres) deep into the shale gas heartlands to promote his answer to the energy crisis that’s unfolding as the world searches for replacements to Russian fuel exports. Also among the delegates, who have come from 15 Washington embassies, are officials from such Asian nations as Japan and Pakistan.

“That solution is unleashing U.S. LNG,” Mr. Rice says, referring to liquefied natural gas, the chilled, condensed form of gas that can be funnelled into tankers and shipped overseas.

As Europe tries to disconnect itself from Russian supply in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, proponents of the U.S. gas industry see a huge opportunity for their LNG exports to plug the gap.

Critics see a cynical ploy to use a foreign war to push more fossil fuels.

The frac sand Mr. Rice is sharing will be used to prop open fissures in rock deep underground to release gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale plays of the Appalachian basin – the epicentre of U.S. production.

The U.S. is the world’s leading producer of natural gas, pumping around 96-billion cubic feet a day (cu ft/d). In the first four months of the year, the country exported 11.5-billion cu ft/d of gas in the form of LNG, three-quarters of which went to Europe.

The sun is set to rise. In a deal struck with the Biden administration, Brussels has pledged to increase European Union demand for U.S. gas by 4.8-billion cu ft/d by the end of the decade. For Mr. Rice, that’s only a starting point: he wants the U.S. to more than quadruple its global LNG exports to 55-billion cu ft/d by 2030 – more than total European consumption.

“I’ve never been more excited about the future,” Mr. Rice says. “We need to recognize the fact that we are in a bad situation right now. And we need to unleash our resources – unleash American energy.”

The change in fortunes for the U.S. gas industry has been rapid.

Just 18 months ago, its prospects looked bleak. A US$7-billion deal between French utility Engie SA and Texas LNG group NextDecade Corp. fell apart over concerns over the environmental impact of U.S. gas.

But today the winds have changed as the geopolitical situation pushes energy security ahead of climate concerns in many countries.

“The war in Ukraine has clarified a lot of minds,” says Fred Hutchison, president of the U.S. LNG Association, the Washington-based lobby group that organized this week’s diplomatic bus tour. “There’s one hell of a scramble on right now.”

EQT’s EQT-N own share price has more than doubled since the beginning of the year. The company’s first-quarter production volumes of 492-billion cu ft were up by 19 per cent from the previous year, while its adjusted net income quadrupled to US$334-million.

Still, while gas might be cleaner burning than coal, its combustion for heat and power pumps huge volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – reaching an all-time high of 7.35-billion tonnes last year, according to the International Energy Agency.

Expanding gas export infrastructure risks locking in dependence on fossil fuels from which the world needs to shift away if global warming is to be contained.

Last week, John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, blasted what he called “vested interests” that he said were “trying to exploit Ukraine and tell people we need a whole new generation of infrastructure built out” that would undermine climate targets.

U.S. oil and gas operations also spew around 13-million tonnes of methane into the atmosphere annually, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. A far more potent greenhouse gas than CO₂ in the short term, methane is the primary component of natural gas.

“Methane is an issue we attach great importance to – we are looking for greener and cleaner natural gas,” says Thitiwat Sukhasvasti, a counsellor from the Thai embassy who joined the tour.

As the diplomats were shuttled between fields scattered with bales of hay and shining tractors, EQT talked up its measures to clamp down on leaks and clean up the production process. Some were impressed.

“For me personally, fracking was kind of a bad word – maybe up until today,” says Gints Zadraks, a counsellor at the Latvian embassy.

Yet, even beyond pollution, there are big challenges to any expansion of U.S. LNG exports. Pipeline projects to carry gas from Appalachia to the coast have faced dogged opposition, forcing some to be cancelled.

For now, the country’s seven LNG export terminals are running flat out. One of these – the Freeport LNG facility on the Texas coast – was taken offline this week after an explosion, putting around a fifth of U.S. capacity out of action for the next three weeks.

Still, despite Mr. Kerry’s skepticism, the geopolitical situation has created a new alliance between the gas sector and the Biden administration as it seeks to provide Europe with an alternative to Russian gas.

“Europe has put itself in a really precarious position,” Amos Hochstein, the state department’s senior energy security advisor, and a former LNG company executive, told a U.S. Senate panel on Thursday.

“And we, the United States, are now in the position to help them get out of this precarious condition.”

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