Economy & Jobs
Energy & Environment
By Nikolaus J. Kurmayer | EURACTIV.com
22-08-2022 (updated: 22-08-2022 )
With the US shipping massive amounts of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe to lessen its dependence on Russia, environmental organisations are concerned about the climate implications of US LNG. [Shutterstock/Aerial-motion]
Concerns about the climate impact of liquefied natural gas (LNG) are mounting as US shipments to Europe surge in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Since March, global LNG exports to Europe have risen by 75% year-on-year as EU countries imposed sanctions on Moscow and sought to diversify from Russian gas, according to the European Commission.
And most of that is coming from the US. In March, Washington agreed to supply 15 billion cubic metres (bcm) of additional LNG to EU markets this year, a target it is now likely to smash.
Through June this year, the US exported about 57 bcm of LNG, with 39 bcm going to Europe, according to data from Refinitiv published in late July.
“LNG exports from the United States to the European Union have nearly tripled,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in July.
The US is on track to blow past Biden’s March commitment of an additional 15 billion cubic meters of LNG for Europe this year, according to a Reuters analysis of export data compiled by Refinitiv, and to triple the pledge.
However, the surge in US LNG imports also raises questions about its climate impact.
Europeans have until now shunned American LNG, which is more expensive than Russian gas and has a reputation for being more polluting.
First, US gas is mostly produced by fracking, a technology which is widely banned across the European Union over environmental concerns. American LNG is also more energy-intensive than Russian pipeline gas because it needs to be cooled and pressurised before it is shipped across the Atlantic.
In 2020, French energy utility Engie was asked by the government to drop a US LNG import deal. The project was “not aligned with France’s environmental project and environmental vision” said a French source quoted by Reuters at the time.
Berlin is similarly reluctant about US shale gas, even though it has little alternatives to Russian imports for the time being. Fracking remains banned in Germany although the country has large shale gas reserves.
“There are different suppliers, it doesn’t have to be America,” said Robert Habeck, Germany’s vice-chancellor, in comments made on 28 February, days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The EU would import “natural gas supplies from other parts of the world” and “not fracking gas from the US,” he told journalists in Brussels at the time.
Still, on 16 August, Habeck announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding with German energy utilities to maximise the use of the country’s LNG import capacity. Under the deal, Uniper, RWE and EnBW guaranteed they will buy LNG no matter the cost until 2024 to ensure Germany’s 12.5 bcm annual regasification terminals is used to its full capacity.
But discontent is brewing. On 13 August, one of Germany’s most prominent climate activists, Luisa Neubauer, was seen wearing blue-red signage spelling out “F**K LNG” during a protest in Hamburg where the country’s future LNG terminals are due to be built.
As Russia’s war continues, the German government has been frantically looking for alternatives to Russian pipeline gas and mobile floating tankers repurposed to process LNG from around the world have become the government’s solution.
To ship gas long-distance, it needs to …
So what is the climate impact of US LNG in comparison with Russian pipeline gas? The answer, unfortunately, is not straightforward.
Fossil gas is traditionally seen as a more climate-friendly alternative to coal because it about 50% less CO2 when burned to generate electricity.
The main issue comes with leakage that occurs before the gas is burned. Methane is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, 27 to 30 times more impactful than CO2 on a 100-year basis, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
But measuring leakage, and therefore evaluating climate impact, is a difficult task.
“It is currently not possible to compare emissions from US LNG to Russian gas due to a lack of data,” says Daniel Zavala, senior scientist at the US-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a green campaign group.
While there had been “a lot of progress in estimating methane emissions from US production regions,” Russia did not offer much in the way of “limited transparent, measurement-based data,” he told EURACTIV.
However, in a March analysis, the environmentalist think-tank Rocky Mountain Insitute (RMI) concluded that Russian gas to Germany has a climate footprint that is two to three times larger than US and Qatari gas, with calculations based on the assumption that Russian pipelines are twice as leaky as their US counterparts.
Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas giant, claims leaks are near zero because methane is classified as a “toxic substance” in Russia. In comments made in 2020, Konstantin Romanov, head of sustainable resource management at Gazprom, said methane emissions amounted to 0.02% of the volumes of gas produced, 0.29% of the gas transported, and 0.03% of the gas stored underground.
Based on third-party measurements, researchers however, use a 2% minimum leakage rate for Russia – significantly higher than the one publicised by Gazprom.
Nonetheless, US natural gas production is not leak-free, as highlighted by reports of massive leakage rates in the Permian basin, estimated to be around 9% of gas production.
According to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the US leaked about 6,339,000 tonnes of methane in 2021. On the other hand, Russia leaked 5,039,000 tonnes of methane – though the IEA offered a caveat that the data is based on “low coverage”.
As the US is a bigger producer of natural gas than Russia, at around 965 bcm in 2021 compared to Russia’s 762 bcm, these leaks are spread out across more gas.
A recent Greenpeace USA report accused the US of “greenwashing” its LNG cargoes through creative certification.
To understand its full methane emission footprint and its impact on the climate, Europe needs to assess oil and gas imports from countries such as Algeria, Russia and Qatar, for which no data is available yet, says Stefan Schwietzke.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon, Nathalie Weatherald and Alice Taylor]