Under pressure from Trump, just weeks ahead of the European Parliamentary elections, the EU Commission signed a long-term agreement locking in at least 20-years of imported fracked Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) shipments. Despite hundreds of international environmental groups warning this will torpedo the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Accords and retard plans to decarbonize Europe, EU President Juncker and Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič are hailing the deal as part of the continent’s on-going clean energy transition. L. Michael Buchsbaum takes a look.
The fracking boom in the US was first sold to the general public as a bridge towards a renewable energy future. Essentially the freeing of hundreds of billions of cubic meters of trapped gasses, mainly methane, fracking was initially framed as a more environmental alternative to dirty coal. Indeed when burned, fossil or “natural” gas only releases roughly half as much Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere. But methane, which is also a greenhouse gas, has between 80 and 120 times more heat-trapping potential over a 20-year period compared to CO2. And its leaking all across the production and transportation chain.
Now as fracking across the US (and worldwide) has boomed, increased scientific evidence shows that methane emissions from gas extraction in general and from shale gas in particular are becoming significant drivers of global warming and climate change. As early as 2012, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) issued a “Global Alert” on fracking, concluding that it may have environmental impacts even when done properly. Ahead of the imported LNG debate, the German Federal Ministry for the Environment additionally concluded that fracked hydrocarbons being transported to Germany are just as climate-damaging as coal.
From the other side of the Atlantic, in the heart of fracked Pennsylvania, Dr. Robert Howarth, a researcher from Cornell University recently presented evidence that the global increase in methane over the last 10 years is largely driven by the oil and gas industry. In a recent talk titled, “The Role of Shale Gas Development in the Methane Cycle: New Insights from 13C and 14C Data,” Howarth updated the estimate for average, full-cycle methane leakage rate from natural gas operations (fracked and non-fracked) to 4.1%. These kinds of leakage rates render natural gas just as, if not more, climate harmful than coal.
Disregarding any scientific concerns, at the end of April, during celebrations over US produced LNG export levels to the EU rising by almost 300% over the last few years, US energy secretary Rick Perry and EU Vice-President for Energy Maroš Šefčovič signed a pair of export orders intended to double America’s export capacity to Europe to 112 billion cubic meters per year by 2020.
Hailing the move as a way to prevent Russian energy-market control, Perry framed the deal as a second liberation. Seventy-five years after rolling back Nazi German occupation, “the United States is again delivering a form of freedom to the European continent,” said Perry, at a Brussels signing ceremony. “And rather than in the form of young American soldiers, it’s in the form of liquefied natural gas,” he said.
“We’re expecting about 8 billion cubic meters per annum of [additional] US LNG into Europe over a 12 month period,” said Steven Winberg, assistant US secretary for fossil energy. “We have about 10bcm per annum of capacity right now, so we could in effect double exports to Europe. Perhaps even more relevant is that by 2020, we will go from 50bcm of export capacity to 112bcm per annum – more than doubling capacity,” said Winberg.
Though Japan remains the US’ single biggest destination country, the new export orders will allow a doubling of capacity to Europe in coming years. “Our LNG import capacity is well over 200 bcm and will even further expand in the coming years,” said Šefčovič at a ceremony opening up a new US-based LNG port in mid-May. “We have already well-developed LNG import capacities in eleven EU countries. New terminals have been recently constructed in Lithuania and Poland. Additional ones are planned in Croatia, Greece and Germany.”
In television interviews following the event, Šefčovič crowed that the EU’s huge hunger for LNG has already sold out the new facility “for the next 20 years.” Going forward, he claimed, “fossil gas will be part of the “combined Green sustainable transformation with industrial competiveness. Going to gas is part of the energy transformation,” he promised—further doubling down on the assumption that fossil gas will help the building climate emergency.
Environmentalists and scientists cry out
But ahead of the announcement, over 200 groups from both sides of the Atlantic signed an open letter to the EU and US governments calling instead for the immediate ending of LNG shipments fearing that instead of investing in clean energy alternatives, governments are “paving the way for the prolonged use of fossil fuels and plastics, creating twin environmental and human rights emergencies”…ushering in “climate chaos,” said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch and Food & Water Europe.
The letter’s signatories further state that given that the new gas infrastructure has a significant economic lifespan, usually between 30 and 50 years, fossil gas consumption will go beyond the point when the EU must fully decarbonize its energy systems. Moreover, the environmental groups also highlighted the link between cheaped fracked gas, ethane, and single-use plastic production, the latter of which is now poised to explode throughout Europe as new plants are built near LNG ports.
Indeed, ahead of the critical late May EU Parliament elections that could lead to the charting of the EU’s decarbonization through 2050, the new deal could instead lock in a climate disaster. Environmental groups worry it’s net affect will likely take the world far beyond safe climate limits.
Just as problematic, fracking has also led to an oversupply of cheap ethane, a critical feedstock for plastic manufactures. Beginning in 2012, chemical companies started aggressively investing in petrochemical plants and export facilities focused on tapping the ethane glut, creating further negative implications for human and environmental rights. Several new plants are planned to be co-located near new European LNG terminals.“The EU is importing U.S. fracked gas to create plastics,” says Andy Gheorghiu, policy advisor at Food & Water Europe. “Europe is throwing away a stable climate for a throw-away society.”