Litmus test: Will regulators acknowledge Nord Stream’s footprint?

While construction on the Russian-backed Nord Stream 2 fossil gas pipeline nears completion, international media attention remains focused squarely on its geopolitical significance. Often missing are the project’s looming climate impacts. Following the landmark decision by Germany’s Constitutional Court ordering politicians to protect future generations from climate harm by staying within the nation’s carbon budget, NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe or Environmental Action Germany is suing the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency (BSH) to revoke its construction permit. Despite the pipeline being the largest fossil fuel project in Europe, its climate impacts have never been reviewed during its approval process, nor has any official body ordered a complete lifecycle analysis of the project. Against this backdrop, Nord Stream 2 is also a litmus test of Germany’s commitment to climate. The first in a series of posts, lead blogger Michael Buchsbaum reviews how Nord Stream 2 contradicts German and European Union climate targets, the 2015 Paris Agreement and violates recent court decisions.

pipeline - License: Public Domain, Photo by LoggaWiggler

pipeline – License: Public Domain, Photo by LoggaWiggler

Unconsidered emissions


As you read this, Russian state-owned Gazprom and its western oil and gas partners are racing to finish construction of the 1,230 km Nord Stream 2 (NS2) pipeline, Europe’s largest fossil fuel project. With a capacity to transport over 55 billion cubic meters (bcm) of fossil gas annually, it’s two strings pass under the Baltic Sea connecting newly developed deposits in Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula with major gas markets in Europe after making landfall in northeastern Germany.


Once operational, NGOs Urgewald and Environmental Action Germany (DUH) calculate the pipeline’s gas will generate some 100 million tons of CO2 emissions per year. But according to Environmental Action Germany (DUH), to date, state and regional administrators have only considered the pipeline’s direct climate impacts related to steel used for the pipeline and the fuel the trucks will need to transport materials to the construction site.


At no point did they “consider the emissions that are following from the operation of the pipeline itself,” said Constantin Zerger, Head of Energy and Climate Protection for DUH.


“One has to see this pipeline as a single unit,” accounting for the production, transport and usage of the fossil gas involved in the environmental evaluation, Zerger said in an interview with ET. “Otherwise the whole project wouldn’t make any sense.”


Methane Reopener


With the original permit already in effect, in July 2020 DUH seized upon a “reopener clause” within the permit that says if new scientific findings about the pipeline’s environmental impacts come to light, then these need to be considered. Citing new evidence published in 2018 detailing the environmental impacts of methane, the NGO filed a series of lawsuits demanding regulators “consider the full climate effects of the pipeline.”


New studies show that over a 20-year period, the heat-trapping capacity of methane is 86 times more potent than that of CO2. And it remains at least 34 times as potent as CO2 over a 100-year timespan. Fossil gas, which consists of 75-100% methane, has been shown to consistently leak into the atmosphere during its production, refining, transport, and final burn in power plants and households. Studies show that if and when these leakages exceed 2.4 – 3.2% of total production, gas would then have a worse climate footprint than coal.


Worryingly, evidence is mounting that fugitive methane leakage far above this is regularly occurring industry-wide. Satellite data and other recent measurements show that atmospheric methane levels have doubled between 2007 and 2018, largely due to high increasing gas extraction within the US –mainly from fracking.


Given that only a few years remain to decarbonize the economy and avoid climate tipping points, the shorter term impacts of methane are of utmost concern.


“What we ask is that those methane emissions from the production of the fossil gas is evaluated. This has not been done in any way so far,” Zerger continued. Only such life-cycle analysis looking upstream as well as down “will give us a true picture of the environmental impacts of this pipeline and the fossil gas that’s going to transport,” he said.


Game-changing Constitutional Court decision


In a stunning ruling at the end of April, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court found the country’s current climate plans to be inadequate since they backload emission reductions onto periods after 2030. The court determined that Berlin’s current plans illegally allow industry to exceed the nation’s carbon budget long before emissions targets would be met. Therefore the Court ordered the German legislature until  the  end of 2022 to set clear provisions for reduction targets for the period from 2031 onward.


The court ruling “made it clear” that climate protection both today and for future generations is enshrined in the German Constitution, wrote DUH in a press release following the decision. Given that throughout their approval process, authorities had not considered NS2’s future impacts on climate targets nor how Germany’s remaining CO2 budget would be reduced when it begins operations, allowing it to operate as planned “runs counter to the global dimension and intergenerational justice of the climate protection requirement in Article 20a of the German Constitution”.


Essentially, said Zerger, the court ruled that Germany’s existing climate plan was not sufficient for it to comply within a carbon budget necessary to hold to a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature increase by mid-century. If budgetary boundaries were overshot, the court found the German government “would need to take much stronger action in the future that would trample the basic rights of generations beginning in 2030 and beyond,” he said.


Since the fossil gas delivered by NS2 is projected to release roughly one billion tons of CO2 alone over the next decade and none of this has been incorporated into that budget, “its really obvious NS2 emissions constitute a total overshoot” far into the future.


The facts have changed


On June 2, DUH applied to the Germany’s Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency (BSH) to revoke NS2’s construction and operating permit on climate protection grounds. DUH is also requesting a moratorium on further construction until the project’s climate impacts are reviewed.


The Federal Constitutional Court ruling, DUH believes has itself created “new facts” with its climate protection decision. “Nord Stream 2 is the litmus test for whether the German government and the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency take climate protection seriously,” said Sascha Müller-Kraenner, DUH’s national director.


The ruling makes it “obvious that further construction must be stopped,” he continued. “This agency must not turn a blind eye to the climate-damaging effects of the pipeline and must revoke its approval immediately,” Müller-Kraenner said.


But despite neither Angela Merkel’s Grand Coalition in Berlin nor regional authorities signaling an intent to change course, Müller-Kraenner vows her organization will continue fighting the pipeline with “all legal means at our disposal.”


As of publication, no hearings have been scheduled.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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