Europe’s warm welcome to LNG raises concerns over methane emissions

Emily Pickrell, UH Energy Fellow

Europe is desperate to import more natural gas in the name of national security, but struggles to explain how this production fits into the global need to reduce harmful methane and greenhouse gas emissions.

This is a good example of a growing problem: how energy resources can meet immediate national economic and security needs, while disrupting long-term climate change goals.

Europe’s interest in more LNG imports makes sense. Its dependence on Russian gas has become unsustainable, given the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. While Europe has worked hard to tout its interest in renewable energy, Putin’s threat to Europe has provided a security rationale for exploring alternative routes to import gas.

Russia currently supplies (by pipeline) around 40% of European natural gas demand, with few readily available alternatives. The European Union expressed its need to replace Russian fossil fuels and presented its RePowerEU plan, which will focus on increasing energy efficiency and the use of clean energy. By doing so, he hopes to reduce Russian oil and gas imports by two-thirds this year and the remaining third by 2027.

But most of the rest will be offset by gas from LNG. Although the expansion of pipelines from Spain may also eventually allow a greater influx of natural gas to Europe, Europe must have immediate replacements that can come online now and in the near future. For this plan to work, Europe will need to make huge infrastructure investments in regasification facilities, which could lead to a huge increase in greenhouse gas emissions, including methane.

European officials have already begun to recognize how damaging these methane emissions can be. Methane’s global warming potential is estimated to be more than 80 times that of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after its release, according to the International Energy Agency’s Methane Tracker website.

Even after 100 years, it is still about 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide molecules. And while methane emissions come from many sources – agriculture, for example – emissions from the energy industry have technological solutions, such as detecting leaks or ending the practice of evacuation of gases.

Looking at how LNG compares to the dismal environmental footprint of Russian gas, it doesn’t give much assurance that Europe will be able to reduce global methane emissions through this change.

It is true that Gazprom’s Russian gas is notoriously dirty: Russian natural gas production involves high methane emissions. The Russian oil and gas industry emitted 18.3 million tonnes of methane in 2021, exceeding the 17 million tonnes emitted by the United States or the 4 million tonnes of methane emitted by European oil and gas production .

Yet LNG is dirtier.

In a direct comparison, even relatively clean LNG from Qatar or Australia emits between 60 and 175% more greenhouse gas emissions than Russian natural gas. American gas is even worse, due to high fugitive methane emissions that occur during production and processing.

LNG does better in a direct comparison with coal. Using LNG in power plants can reduce emissions by 40% to 100% from coal-fired power, depending on how the LNG was produced and shipped, as well as the quality of the coal and the extraction methods .

Before the invasion of Ukraine, Europe had already started trying to address the need to reduce methane emissions. In 2020, the European methane strategy was published. This strategy proposed more precise measurement and reporting as a starting point.

“The existing systems we have for collecting and reconciling methane data do not allow us to identify with high precision where emissions are occurring and in what volumes,” the European Commission wrote on its website, explaining its proposed reduction methodology. “Every opportunity to strengthen our ability to have good independent and reliable numbers will result in more focused and better targeted actions.”

The strategy details plans to account for methane emissions from all sources, including natural gas imported into EU countries. The European Green Deal, a set of policy initiatives aimed at making the EU climate neutral by 2050, also contains provisions on methane.

It includes requirement plans for better reporting, obligations to improve leak detection and repair, and establishes rules for eliminating routine venting and flaring.

At the COP26 climate summit, European leaders claimed others were following their lead: They pushed for a 30% cut in methane emissions from 2020 levels by the end of the decade.

Now, in light of the war, the situation looks more complicated, and there are now seven LNG facilities under construction and 26 more planned, as Europe becomes more aggressive in moving away from Russian gas.

“I think security has taken precedence over climate concerns in Europe, and there doesn’t seem to be a role for Russian gas in the future without major geopolitical changes,” said Victor Flatt, co-director of environment. , energy and natural resources. University of Houston Law Center Resource Center. “Being dependent on Russian oil and gas is a big, big problem. In this sense, security trumps climate, at least for now.

Europe is trying to balance this projected LNG growth with more offshore wind projects and other renewable projects.

However, Europe’s decision to invest in LNG could call into question its own methane reduction commitments, especially since the significant investments made will tend to justify the continuation of these operations for decades to come.

Emily Pickrell is a veteran energy journalist, with over 12 years of experience covering everything from oil fields to industrial water policy to Mexico’s latest climate change laws. Emily has reported on energy issues in the US, Mexico and the UK. Prior to journalism, Emily worked as a political analyst for the US Government Accountability Office and as an auditor for the international aid organization CARE.

UH Energy is the University of Houston’s center for energy technology education, research, and incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy sector.

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Post expires at 4:56am on Sunday June 26th, 2022