Commission gives ‘green light’ to fracked gas imports

Anti-fracking placard. New York, 2011. [Bosc d'Anjou/Flickr]

The European Commission’s plan to boost imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) into the EU has raised fears that it will encourage climate-warming fracking in countries such as the United States.

The executive yesterday outlined plans to increase LNG imports by improving interconnections, building new hubs and infrastructure.

Increasing the  bloc’s LNG utilisation rate, which stands at just 20%, would make it less dependent on unreliable suppliers such as Russia, the Commission said. Norway is also a major natural gas supplier to the EU.

EU gas production was declining, making more imports necessary, it added. The executive is speaking to countries such as Canada, the US, Australia, Japan, Nigeria and Algeria about importing LNG.

World leaders in December agreed a landmark deal to limit global warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels.  The Paris Agreement was hailed a clear signal to the market that the era of polluting fossil fuels was over.

Natural gas is also mostly composed of methane, a greenhouse gas that, over 20 years, has 86 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide.

Studies have found that natural gas-fired electricity generation is only good for the climate in comparison to coal-fired generation if any methane leakage over production, processing and transmission, is less than 3.2%. That figure does not include distribution.

EU unveils plans to vet energy contracts outside bloc

The EU unveiled plans on Tuesday (16 February) to vet energy contracts that member states sign with countries outside the bloc as it seeks to cut dependence on Russian gas.

Fracking is when fluids are injected into the ground at high pressure to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas. It is criticised for harming the environment.

Almost half (47%) of natural gas produced in the US is fracked. Satellite emission rates have recently shown that methane concentrations rose dramatically in many of the major shale gas producing regions in the USA.

They showed emission rates in the Eagle Ford (Texas), Marcellus (Pennsylvania) and Bakken (North Dakota) regions that reached 9.5% of total methane production.

The ‘shale boom’ has convinced the US to lift its long-standing ban on energy exports.  Several projects have got approval to export liquefied fracked gas but only a few are ready to operate at the moment.

Antoine Simon, of Friends of the Earth Europe, said that the gas package had given the US the “green light” to export fracked gas to the EU.

Bridge fuel

Climate Commissioner Miguel Aria Cañete told reporters in Brussels that gas was the cleanest of fossil fuels and was needed as a “ bridge” to manage the shift to a low carbon economy.

Cañete did not answer directly when asked by EURACTIV if encouraging fracked LNG imports, which would be carried by ships –  a sector not covered in the Paris Agreement – was against the spirit of the climate deal.

Additionally he was unable to say when the European Union would stop building gas infrastructure, which campaigners say will eventually become stranded assets or lock the bloc into gas at the expense of emission-free renewables.

“At the Paris climate talks in Paris two months ago, the European Commission urged the world to move to net zero emissions by the second half of the century. Today it is urging gas companies to invest in new import facilities that will last 40 years or more, and is offering them public money for them to do so,” said Jonathan Gavanta, director of environmental think tank E3G.

The executive said that gas would be an important part of the EU’s energy mix until 2030. “Gas is going to be with us for a while and we have to have security of supply,”  Cañete said.

The Commission has said it wants to become the world’s number one in renewables and has vowed to put energy efficiency first in its plans.

But increasing renewables and efficiency, as mandated by EU leaders ahead of Paris, will cause a further drop in gas demand, according to campaigners.

Lost in the gas bubble

The Commission’s new gas strategy is an affront to the Paris agreement, at a time when we should be leading the global energy transition and leaving fossil fuels behind us, writes Claude Turmes.

“Even if we meet ambitious targets on greenhouse gas emissions, renewables and efficiency, we will still need a substantial amount of gas,” Cañete said

“It is very clear that gas is cleanest of fossil fuels. The market will decide but the Commission is assessing the need to have very well interconnected gas market in order to use gas as a back-up energy to support a very ambitious system of renewables.”

Maroš Šefčovic, the Commissioner in charge of the Energy Union strategy to bolster energy security and fight climate change, added that countries that were poorly interconnected paid more for their gas.

He was certain that the EU would deliver a carbon neutral economy by the end of the century and added that LNG could help decarbonise the polluting transport sector.

US Climate Envoy

US Climate Envoy Todd Stern, the American negotiator in Paris, was in Brussels yesterday.

He refused to comment when asked by EURACTIV about American plans to step up LNG exports because it is managed by the department of energy.

Asked about how credible a bridge fuel natural gas was, Stern said the shale boom had led to a decrease in coal use in the States.

“Having said that it is really critical you get the environmental piece done right,” he said.

“Methane is 20 times more polluting than CO2 so fairly small leaks where the methane isn’t even being flared, just released into the atmosphere, can upend the advantage natural gas has over coal.”

Despite the recent pausing of the flagship Clean Power Plan, Stern added that the US would sign the Paris Agreement “come what may”.

The EU unveiled plans on Tuesday (16 February) to vet energy contracts that member states sign with countries outside the bloc as it seeks to cut dependence on Russian gas.

The European Commission, the executive of the 28-country bloc, proposed changes so it can review such agreements before they are signed to see if they comply with EU rules.

For the tenth year in a row, EU states imported half of their energy needs in 2014. A third of their gas imports come from Russia alone and some newer eastern members are almost entirely reliant on Moscow.


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