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The problem with shipping gas to Europe

The problem with shipping gas to Europe

One four-syllable word has an outsize role in shaping our climate future.


Consider the infrastructure that got Europe hooked on Russian fuel. It was a 3,500-mile pipeline that began, in 1984, to carry gas from Siberia to West Germany, as my colleague Hiroko Tabuchi wrote this week. The C.I.A. warned against it, saying it would create a dangerous reliance on the Soviet Union. American oil companies, hoping for a cut of the profits, lobbied for it — and prevailed.

Now, 40 years later, President Biden has proposed an infusion of American gas to help Europe break free of Russian energy dependence.

That will be hard to deliver, as my colleague Clifford Krauss explained. But the proposition is presenting lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic with a crucial question: Will this wartime surge end up creating a new generation of infrastructure that locks Europe into the gas habit for longer?

Tucked into the White House announcement is a crucial detail: The United States expects to more than double its gas sales to Europe, to 50 billion cubic meters, “until at least 2030.” That’s a lot of gas.

Expect fierce jockeying in the coming weeks, with profound repercussions for the world’s ability to avert climate catastrophe.

The American supplies would come in the form of liquefied natural gas, and that’s a particular kind of fossil fuel. Compared with piped gas, L.N.G. production generates higher levels of carbon emissions, though far less than coal.

Replacing Russian piped gas with L.N.G. right now isn’t necessarily a big climate problem. The worry is that, if new gas pipelines and terminals get built, they’ll be used for a long time, making it all but impossible to slow down global warming.

“I’m very worried our climate goals may be another victim of Russia’s aggression,” Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency, said this week in Paris at a meeting of energy ministers from around the world.

That meeting, Birol said, was supposed to be devoted to a discussion of the global energy transition away from fossil fuels. Instead, it was punctuated with discussions about how to increase production of fossil fuels to help Europe wean itself from Russian energy. The agency has said no new oil and gas fields should be developed starting this year if the world is to avert the worst effects of climate change.

The Biden Administration is under additional scrutiny. It has been unable to enact major climate legislation. We’ll keep you posted on whether it succumbs to pressure to approve new gas production permits or green-light new gas export terminals. New fossil fuel infrastructure projects take years to build, they are expensive and they tend to get used for decades.

The U.S. energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, tried to thread the needle. “There’s always concern about increasing infrastructure that would lock in problems related to greenhouse gas emissions,” she said in a response to a reporter’s question on Thursday at the Paris meeting. “There’s no doubt about that.”

But she insisted, as she has since the Russian invasion of Ukraine that began last month, that the administration wants the oil and gas industry to “ramp up production where and whenever they can right now,” even as it wants to transition to cleaner sources of energy that don’t come from fossil fuels.

The European Union has one of the world’s most ambitious climate targets: By law, it’s required to cut greenhouse gas emissions across the 27-nation bloc by 55 percent by 2030. Europe had counted on using gas to pivot away from coal and reach its climate goals long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The biggest share of that gas came from Russia.

Now, as the European Commission seeks to reduce Russian gas imports, it has proposed to ramp up renewable energy sources, to reduce energy demand by insulating leaky old buildings, to install heat pumps. All those things could very well hasten Europe’s transition to clean energy.

Renewables could replace two-thirds of Russian gas imports by 2025, one European think tank, the Regulatory Assistance Project, argued in an analysis this week. The rest could be replaced with gas other than from Russia without building new gas infrastructure.

Europe’s quest to ditch Russian gas immediately is a tall order, though.

Most U.S. gas exports have buyers already under long-term contracts. American export terminals are shipping out all the gas they can. Some European countries have import terminals that can take in more L.N.G., as the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies noted in a recent study. Others don’t.

If Europe builds more import terminals to take in liquefied natural gas, it could lock in reliance on gas for many more decades to come — and that gas infrastructure could risk becoming stranded assets in another 10 to 15 years.

Even before the war, L.N.G. import terminals were being expanded in Belgium and Poland, and a new one was approved in Greece. Since the invasion, Germany has approved two new terminals, as we wrote recently in this newsletter. The Netherlands recently approved a new floating gas-import terminal.

Nikos Tsafos, an energy security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research organization, said that if Europe replaced piped gas from Russia with liquefied gas from somewhere else, it wouldn’t much affect its climate targets.

“There is fear of lock-in. But, in reality, if the L.N.G. merely displaces Russian gas, the climate impact will be trivial,” he argued. “Europe is still committed to phasing out gas use, more so now than before.”

Not so, the United States. It is poised to be the world’s largest gas exporter this year. Gas producers are bullish on growing the market. One industry analyst told Bloomberg that U.S. gas suppliers ought to negotiate contracts with European buyers immediately.

Claire Healy, head of the Washington office of the climate research group, E3G, said the U.S. plan to bolster L.N.G. shipments “makes no sense,” considering the need to quickly stop new oil and gas production to avert the worst effects of climate change. “It has turned a short-term energy crunch into a long-term crutch for American oil and gas producers,” she said.

Environmental art: Over the past six months, more than a dozen exhibitions explicitly confronting climate change have been held around the world.

Climate volunteers: A scientist in England asked for help transcribing rainfall records spanning three centuries. Thousands, stuck in lockdown, answered the call.

Methane leaks: Startlingly large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, are leaking from wells and pipelines in New Mexico, according to a new analysis.

Putin’s climate envoy quits: Anatoly B. Chubais reportedly resigned in protest over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Alarm in Australia: A stretch of the Great Barrier Reef, off the country’s eastern coast, has been hit by a sixth mass bleaching event.

Today, we’re inviting readers to send us questions. There are no limits to what you can ask, as long as it’s related to climate. Don’t be embarrassed to ask something you feel like you should already know — if you’re wondering, other people probably are, too. Between now and Earth Day, April 22, we will sift through the messages. Your questions, and the answers, will form the basis of future projects on the Climate desk, including in this newsletter. You can submit questions here.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Tuesday.

Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.

Reach us at [email protected] We read every message, and reply to many!

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