With the ink barely dry on Germany’s Coal Commission report recommending a phase out by 2038, the oil and gas industry is breaking out the champagne. While environmentalists criticize the plan’s particulars, the other side is celebrating the slaying of their strongest competitor. And they’re translating that joy into furious lobbying aimed at ensuring that renewables don’t fill the majority of the void as coal plants are shuttered. L. Michael Buchsbaum explains.
Gas infrastructure set to expand in all directions
With the environmental community and media otherwise focused on the Commission’s report, in late January Chancellor Angel Merkel (CDU) addressed the 49th Annual World Economic Meeting and let the cat out of the proverbial bag: “if we phase out coal and nuclear energy, then we have to be honest and tell people that we’ll need more natural gas.”
Calling the growing tug-of-war over where that future gas supply comes from “a bit over the top,” she reassured the gathered industry executives and politicians that gas will “play a greater role for another few decades. We’re thus expanding infrastructure in all directions.”
Merkel’s candor and bluntness might be rather shocking for those more accustomed to her usual opaque pronouncements. But the fact that coal’s demise was really just a smokescreen for a gas play shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who has followed the US’ rapid transition from billion-ton-a-year-coal-burner to the world’s largest oil and gas producer. As new technologies came into play, beginning in 2005, fracking companies there covertly funded the nascent “Beyond Coal” movement, directly or indirectly, while ensuring the media labeled fossil gas as a natural bridge fuel to renewables.
It was a very successful campaign, as evidenced by the fact that today coal is slipping to only 25% of total US electrical generation, as gas closes in on 40%. Its meteoric growth has always been framed in terms of switching to a cleaner burning fuel, helping blunt the demand for non-hydro renewables, which have been politically fenced in to only 10% of total capacity.
The German playbook’s version similarly calls for bottling up burgeoning wind and solar capacities to about 50% and then ensuring that gas takes up the capacity that coal will eventually leave behind.
The “gas bridge” scam
One of the key components of this play is repeating ad nauseum that burning fossil gas produces only half as much CO2 in comparison to hard coal or lignite, the most polluting of all coals. Until recently, little media attention was given to the fact that fossil gas is essentially methane, which constitutes at least one-third of global warming and is leaking into the atmosphere all across the gas production and delivery chain. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in the first 20 years after its release, methane causes an approximately 87 times greater negative climate effect in the atmosphere than CO2. For a period of 100 years, the climate effect would still be 36 times greater compared to CO2.
In order for the world to meet its Paris-pledged goals of ensuring less than a 1.5 degree temperature rise, gas usage will have to decrease slightly through 2025 and decrease sharply thereafter. But that’s nowhere near current trends.
Instead, throughout the US as producers rapidly drilled, pumped and fracked through the landscape, 60 percent more fugitive methane was being released into the atmosphere through leaky oil and gas production than previously measured, the journal Science reports. In retrospect, when “including methane emissions released during production and transport, in particular the massive fracking emissions which have quickly increased, natural gas is no better than coal,” said climate researcher Niklas Höhne of the NewClimate Institute in Cologne in an interview with Germany’s Deutsche Welle. “If all emissions are considered, natural gas could actually be worse,” he said.
Germany’s Federal Environmental Ministry (BMU) came to this same conclusion as well (in German here). “We assume that natural gas imported by fracking and imported by LNG (liquefied natural gas) will generally not reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal,” stated BMU to DW. While piped-in gas from Russia might be a bit better compared to LNG, the country barely has any fugitive methane controls, and is the leading producer and shipper of gas to Europe and Germany.
Don’t let gas cut out renewables
Sitting in the middle of Europe, Germany is already the world’s largest importer of fossil gas. Though only partially used for generating electricity (about 13% of total), its historically high prices continue to lead many energy experts to assume that it won’t be able to compete with ever-cheaper renewables and take over the space left behind as coal is phased out.
But current trends indicate that green energy expansion is in fact, being deliberately fenced in. While on and offshore wind expansion slows, Nordstream 2 and a plethora of other new pipelines from Russia and newly discovered gas fields in the Middle East as well as the construction of a fleet of new LNG ships and terminals are set to flood the European gas market, dropping gas prices dramatically.
Thereafter, cheap gas will enable a business case for simply switching from one fossil fuel to another, allowing existing under-utilized gas plants more generating capacity and convincing lenders to finance more retrofits of coal plants or the building of new “cleaner” gas plants. Once that infrastructure is built, fossil gas use “will only be prolonged, ensuring it’s harder for renewable energies” to expand said Green Bundestag member Julia Verlinden.
Under this scenario, German gas usage could actually rise by up to 8 percent through 2022 alone according to gas lobbying group Zukunft Erdgas. Coal currently provides about 40% of total capacity. As the first cuts take place under the Coal Commission’s plans by 2022, the gas industry is already planning on jumping into that space.
Likewise, executives at utility Uniper, Germany’s single biggest customer of imported Russian gas and a partner in the Nordstream2 pipeline and various LNG terminal projects, are assuming “that there will be additional gas import demand of 150 billion cubic meter per year by 2030 in Europe,” chief financial officer Christopher Delbrueck said at a news conference on the presentation of the company’s 2018 earnings. Evident of the new gas rush: shipments of U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) have also increased through March following Russia’s record gas flows to Europe in 2018.
So why again does anyone wonder why school kids throughout Europe and worldwide are striking for the future climate?