Natural Gas is a Bridge to Nowhere

Natural gas has long been touted as the climate-friendly, carbon-low interim fuel in the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. And the recent fall in its price has made gas a go-to fuel for many countries, including Germany. But experts say this is no reason to build ever more pipelines or to see gas as anything more than another fossil fuel that must be phased out as quickly as possible. Paul Hockenos reports.

(Jonathan Cutrer, CC BY 2.0)

Natural gas is gladly referred to as a “bridge fuel” by its proponents. Gas, they say, will be relied upon to gradually replace coal-fired power before – at some time in the future – when the world can safely switch to 100% renewables. Natural gas is a reliable 24/7 energy source that can back up renewables as Europe grows its clean energy supplies. This strategy, argue some, would win short-term greenhouse gas reductions since gas has a smaller carbon footprint than coal. This solution supposedly answers the critics of green energy who claim that weather-dependent energy (variable renewables as wind and solar) is unreliable or still too expensive.

But this was the thinking of ten years ago – and it is no longer valid. The fast pace of renewables-based systems’ technical progress – and plummeting costs – has, together with new studies on gas’s toxic methane emissions, cast a new, much less sanguine light on natural gas. These developments throw into question the natural gas projects still being funded by the EU, which intends to rachet up its greenhouse gas reduction targets for 2030 to 55%, compared to 1990 levels. This should put the EU on a path to reach climate neutrality by 2050.

But the planned build-out of natural gas infrastructure from Nord Stream II in the Baltic Sea to pipelines envisioned in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean will only impede the goals of the European Green Deal – and are at the source of geopolitical tensions in the countries near them.

“Fossil gas has no role as a transitional fuel: it accelerates climate change and leaked methane emissions can make it worse for the climate than coal,” argues the NGOs WWF and Climate Action Network Europe. Experts say much the same: Gas “is no longer part of the solution but has become part of the problem,” according to analysts  at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), a research institute. Claudia Kemfert, head of DIW’s energy department, warns that, “Any investment in fossil infrastructure, including natural gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas terminals, will be a lost investment.”

Indeed, new studies have shown natural gas-fired power plants and gas pipelines to emit extremely high levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.  After CO2, methane emissions are the next largest source of atmospheric heating. While methane tends to receive less press than carbon dioxide, cutting down methane emissions will be critical to avoid dramatic climate change, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). In fact, the IEA concludes: “The concentration of methane in the atmosphere is currently around 2.5 times pre-industrial levels and is increasing steadily. This rise has important implications for climate change. Although methane has a much shorter atmospheric lifetime than CO2 – around 12 years, compared with centuries for CO2 – it absorbs much more energy while in the atmosphere.”

In other words, methane is likely just as decisive for global warming as CO2, although it has been less widely researched and measured. According to the Environmental Defence Fund, a US watchdog group, methane has a global warming potential that is over 80 times more powerful than CO2 during the first 20 years after release, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. Methane is emitted when gas is burned in power plants but also in its transport from wellheads to processing facilities and then overseas.

LNG is every bit as methane-high as piped natural gas. The fact that natural gas is a potent fossil fuel and not a harmless “helper” to a system of renewables has the EU up-in-arms, as until recently it had been supporting gas production through investment grants and loans. The EU currently has €117 bn in new gas projects underway: €52 bn for gas pipelines, €12 bn for LNG import terminals, and €53 bn for gas-fired power stations.

On Nov. 19 2020, the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, said that climate risks from gas projects included on the European Commission’s list of priority energy projects were “not sufficiently taken into account”. The Commission is currently at work updating the sustainability criteria for its next priority projects list, which will be finalized this year.

According to Investigate Europe, an EU-supported journalism project, there are 32 gas projects on the EU’s list of projects that can be funded by the EU or the European Investment Bank. Investigate Europe explains the presence of so many gas projects available for EU funding as an upshot of intense industrial lobbying. “A dense network of industry influence [happens] at all political levels,” argues its report The Gas Trap. “From the EU Parliament and Commission to national governments, [the lobby underscores] energy security and the need for a ‘transition’ fuel.”

All of this begs the question of how much gas Europe really requires. Are the new or planned pipelines such as Nord Stream II, TurkStream, or the EastMed pipelines really necessary?

Many experts claim that EU Europe has sufficient access to natural gas and LNG – in fact, its current pipelines operate at two-thirds of total capacity. “The EU already has large excess gas infrastructure,” reported Global Energy Monitor (GEM) in February 2020. “The EU gas import capacity is nearly twice as high as EU gas consumption. EU gas-fired power plants generate only about one-third the electricity that they could.”

According to the GEM report: “Widely used scenarios, including from the European Commission, show agreement that cutting EU emissions to net-zero by 2050 will require sharply reducing the consumption of fossil gas.”

Natural gas may be a great buy these days but the logic of the European Green Deal speaks against it.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

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