By significantly increasing its imports of liquefied natural gas, the majority of which is fracking-produced in the US, the EU is weaning itself off piped Russian gas. But what exactly is LNG? Climate campaigners are describing the arrival of LNG tankers transporting fracked US gas in northern Germany as a significant defeat in the quest to slow global warming.
In order to make up for the lost Russian gas supply, four additional LNG facilities are expected to open in Germany alone. Though hailed as a temporary solution, many worry that the gas will be around for a while given that the EU is now the world’s largest LNG importer.
Researchers on climate change disagree with assertions that most LNG infrastructure is suitable for green hydrogen in the future, given that LNG is estimated to produce almost ten times more emissions than piped gas. They also dispute claims that LNG infrastructure is suitable for green hydrogen in the future. Even though LNG imports are essential to the European Union’s REpowerEU energy strategy, analysts predict that until well after 2024 they won’t be able to alleviate the current Russian gas shortage. However, it is important to understand how LNG is liquefied, transported, and distributed in order to assess any potential climate hazards.
What is LNG, or liquefied natural gas?
LNG is natural gas that has undergone extreme cooling to a liquid state (liquefaction) at a temperature of about -161 degrees Celsius (-259 degrees Fahrenheit). The volume of this liquid gas has shrunk by 600 times, and it weighs only half as much as water.
The compressed fossil fuel, which is almost entirely made up of the powerful greenhouse gas methane, can be shipped anywhere in the world. Once at its destination, the cargo is re-gasified in a floating terminal and distributed via pipelines.
However, despite LNG’s potential for export, its market has been constrained by the high cost of liquefaction and production. Due in part to rising operating and infrastructure expenses, the estimated cost of developing floating LNG terminals in Germany to import gas to replace Russian gas has doubled.
Energy is also needed for the cooling, liquefying, and transport processes, as well as the post-transport regasification procedures. According to Andy Gheorghiu, a campaigner and energy and climate policy consultant based in Germany, “between 10 and 25% of the energy of the gas is wasted during the liquefaction process.”
What effect does LNG have on the climate?
Natural gas extraction from reservoirs, transportation from gas fields to LNG facilities for processing, cooling gas to such low temperatures, and maintaining that temperature before it is warmed and regasified after a protracted sea or rail journey all demand significant amounts of energy.
The high emissions from LNG are also attributed to methane loss along the supply chain. “The chances of methane leakages along the production, transport, and regasification chains are simply significantly higher and hence much more emissions-intensive,” said Gheorghiu. “This is due to LNG’s much more complex production and transport processes.”
LNG emits “nearly twice as much greenhouse gas as regular natural gas,” according to the US-based charity Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC).
Meanwhile, LNG processing is so energy- and carbon-intensive that it can result in approximately ten times as many carbon emissions as piped gas, according to energy researchers at Rystad Energy, located in Norway. According to Kaushal Ramesh, an LNG energy expert at Rystad, the various steps needed to get LNG from the wellhead to the market result in “quite high imported emissions intensity” in comparison to piped gas, whose emissions are restricted to upstream, transport, and processing.
He noted that the emissions intensity of piped gas from Norway in particular is almost ten times lower than the emissions intensity of LNG on average. When producing the same amount of electricity, LNG generates 50 times more carbon dioxide than wind power and 14 times more carbon dioxide than solar power.
Can future green hydrogen be produced at new LNG terminals?
Campaigners claim that the floating LNG terminals already operational in Germany and those already in place in the Netherlands, France, and Belgium cannot be converted into green hydrogen infrastructure.
Olaf Bandt, chairman of Friends of the Earth Germany, stated: “Contrary to what is frequently asserted, floating LNG installations are not convertible to hydrogen” (BUND). The story about H2 [hydrogen] readiness is just not true. These are conventional fossil fuel facilities, which do little to safeguard the climate.
For the clean energy transition to go more quickly, Bandt contends that any LNG terminals constructed must be easily converted to use green hydrogen. The LNG Acceleration Act will allow the first German LNG terminal, which opened in late 2022 in Wilhelmshaven near Bremen, to continue operating until late 2043, or about eight years after all German energy is required to be renewable.
Will LNG ensure supply and maintain reduced gas prices?
According to a study by German experts, including the Berlin-based climate think tank E3G, additional expenses for Germany’s gas imports might reach up to €200 billion ($212 billion) by the end of the decade, doubling gas prices for consumers.
Instead, the existing gas imbalance might be filled by more affordable, sustainable energy sources. According to Maria Pastukhova, senior policy adviser at E3G, extensive building energy efficiency improvements and electric heat pump installations will help “turbocharge” the energy shift.
In line with this, there is concern that excessive LNG infrastructure capacity and long-term regasification agreements at German LNG ports could result in stranded assets, delaying the phase-out of fossil fuels.
According to a study conducted by the German think tank Additional Climate Institute, the new terminals could double current capacity, or by two-thirds of what the country currently uses.This would not only violate Germany’s national climate goals but also violate international agreements made under the Paris Climate Agreement, according to the report.
According to experts, the only long-term answer to the shortage of Russian gas is to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy. Germany can save more gas by investing in energy-efficient buildings, according to Andy Gheorghiu.
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