By CATHY BUSSEWITZ, AP Energy Staff Writer
The European Union’s decision to include natural gas on a list of activities considered sustainable could derail its progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions at a time when climate scientists are calling for drastic reductions in emissions that contribute to global warming.
The decision, reached on Wednesday, will allow investment in natural gas infrastructure, such as natural gas power plants and liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, to be considered green investments under certain conditions. Natural gas is a fossil fuel that causes global warming when burned and even more so when it escapes without burning.
The decision comes at a time when the continent is struggling to maintain a reliable gas supply and consumers are suffering from painfully high energy prices. Russia, which supplied about 40% of Europe’s gas before invading Ukraine, has cut the flow of gas to Europe and could make even more draconian cuts, and nations across Europe have been scrambling to find alternatives to Russian energy.
“This ruling makes sense only as a death sentence for coal,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system sciences at Stanford University. “Otherwise, it’s baffling. We’re approaching 8 billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution a year from gas use alone, and that can’t continue.”
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The European Union has a binding commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 and achieve climate neutrality by 2050. And while Europe is working on transitioning to renewable sources like wind and solar, doesn’t have enough power. lines in place to transport electricity from sunny solar farms and wind turbines.
Natural gas has been touted as a “bridge fuel” because in a side-by-side comparison of power plants, natural gas produces less carbon dioxide when burned than coal. But that’s not the way climate experts see it.
“We can no longer afford to use gas as a clean fuel,” Jackson said. “It’s cleaner than coal, but dirtier than most everything we use today.”
Meanwhile, European politicians are doing everything they can to ensure that people can keep the lights on and still pay their energy bills without breaking the bank.
The decision was welcomed by BDI, Germany’s industry lobby group, which called for more investment in gas infrastructure, including LNG import terminals.
To get more natural gas, Europe is looking to boost LNG imports from countries like the US, which has increased its exports to the continent but cannot produce more LNG without a significant and expensive expansion of its LNG terminals. And the LNG production process is energy-intensive: Carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions from LNG export terminals on the US Gulf Coast were on par with the country of Costa Rica in 2020, according to Global Carbon Project.
In addition to those emissions, there are massive leaks of methane, a gas with far more damaging climate-warming potential than carbon dioxide, throughout the natural gas supply chain. For example, in New Mexico’s Permian Basin, methane leakage into the atmosphere was equivalent to 9% of the region’s gas production, according to a recent study.
“This is an extremely brazen attempt at greenwashing,” said John Sterman, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan Sustainability Initiative.
As part of the rule, gas-fired power plants would have to switch to lower-carbon fuels by 2035. But “the language that says it will only be considered green if it can be converted to hydrogen or a renewable source of fuel gas by 2035 does not excuse it.” Sterman said. “That’s 13 years from now. And in the meantime, such plants would produce significant greenhouse gases and worsen climate change.”
Building new infrastructure for natural gas could increase the severity of climate change in the long term, since infrastructure is built to last 30 or 40 years, which means the possibility of burning fossil fuels well beyond the point that climate experts recommend. .
Building such infrastructure doesn’t happen overnight, either. It takes about four years to build a new LNG terminal, so the approach does not address the needs of Europeans who need to heat their homes next winter.
Still, burning natural gas is preferable to burning alternatives such as coal, oil or tires, all of which are done in Europe, said Julio Friedmann, a fellow at Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy.
“Europe is going through a very difficult time and at the same time is going through an energy transition,” Friedmann said. “For now, natural gas is cleaner than many options.”
There are also quicker solutions than building new onshore LNG facilities on the mainland.
For example, Germany plans to incorporate several floating LNG terminals. That would help the nation gain access to more natural gas, without creating permanent investment.
“They need the supplies but they want to avoid the lockdown,” Friedmann said. “It’s reasonable.”
There are also efforts to get more piped gas from neighbors. Europe has been begging Norway, which supplies 20-25% of Europe’s gas, as well as Qatar and Algeria, to supply more natural gas.
The need for natural gas extends beyond providing electricity and heating to homes. It is also essential as a raw material for fertilizers and in the production of steel and concrete, Friedmann said. Those are needs that renewable energy cannot meet today.
“There are strong limits today on European transmission capabilities,” Friedmann said. “There are strong limits today in the area in which renewable energy can be built on land.”
There are also many things that can be done to reduce climate impact, such as installing carbon capture and storage technology in new natural gas infrastructure, Friedmann said.
But the money would be better spent working to replace natural gas home systems with heat pumps or investing in making homes more energy efficient to dramatically reduce demand, Sterman said.
“No one wants tons of coal or cubic feet of natural gas,” Sterman said. “What people want and need is to be warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and the lights on when they flip the switch…Efficiency is the fastest, safest, and cheapest way to satisfy those wants and needs, with very few trade-offs. unintentional harm, if any.”
Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.
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