Gas chief: LNG can help cut air pollution, boost human health

Cruise ships release a significant amount of particulate matter, often in the heart of cities like Venice (pictured), Barcelona or Athens. [Shutterstock]

Shipping is responsible for more than 3% of global emissions, and that number is expected to grow. Owners and operators will have to decide how to clean up their vessels and liquefied natural gas (LNG) is a potential solution, Gas Infrastructure Europe’s Wim Groenendijk told EURACTIV.

Wim Groenendijk is the president of Gas LNG Europe, a subdivision of Gas Infrastructure Europe (GIE), and vice-president of GIE.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Sam Morgan.

You seem to be focused more on the small-scale uses of LNG but what’s the actual difference between that and large-scale LNG?

We have 23 large scale operational terminals in Europe, which are typically visited by the big cargo ships, transporting LNG in bulk. Once it is gasified it’s essentially just pipeline gas, feeding the networks. But small-scale LNG is something different: it keeps the gas in liquid form for use as a fuel, sometimes in off-grid locations. The relevant market is in transport, meaning shipping and heavy road transport, where it competes with traditional fuels like diesel and heavy fuel oil.

What’s the advantage of using LNG in transport?

As a fuel, it can help clean up the environmental impact of the transport sector, which is quite severe and increasing. It’s particularly useful because there are no real alternatives in heavy transport other than LNG. Batteries are too heavy, filters and scrubbers are end-of-pipe solutions and biofuels have their own raft of problems.

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How far along is small-scale LNG, in particular this idea of “renewable” LNG?

Realistically, the large part of LNG is currently still fossil-based. Small-scale LNG is going through a period of strong development and growth, the potential is definitely there! Yet the market, infrastructure and even legislation still have to develop further. Once all the hardware and software is more mature, we can start phasing in renewables, like LNG based on biomass or from power-to-gas. More and more of these fuels are going to become available, it’s just a matter of time.

What kind of impact does shipping have? What are the main challenges there?

Compared to nearshore shipping, global shipping, where most of our trade happens, offers the biggest challenge. Who’s going to regulate and enforce it? We’ve got the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which is indeed coming to the fore now and producing binding regulations. Their recent regulation on the sulphur cap is going to be a strong driver for us. And that’s only one driver making the case for LNG but in reality, LNG solves a whole array of problems that low sulphur fuels do not.

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Does that include reducing our emissions?

Admittedly, reducing greenhouse gases to the level we need is not one of them. Although the reduction is not insignificant [around 15-25% less CO2], we’re still burning a fossil fuel, so we need the contribution of renewable LNG in the mid- to long-term to get to where we want to be. Make no mistake, there’s potential to go completely CO2 neutral there.

Where LNG can make an impact here and now, next to sulphur and nitrous oxide reduction, is the reduction of fine particle emissions, an issue that is often overlooked but which is an extremely important factor in people’s health. Especially near ports. For example, cruise ships can produce as much fine particulate matter as over 80,000 cars. Imagine a port like Barcelona where there are regularly more than ten at once docked there… That’s nearly a million cars all running their engines in the port at once! LNG totally solves that problem, as it produces virtually no fine particles.

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But does LNG help reduce the effects of global warming in any other way or do we have to wait for renewable LNG to scale up?

Yes, take the Arctic routes that are opening up (ironically, as a result of global climate change). Ships that use heavy fuel oil are responsible for deposits of black soot on the surrounding snow- and ice-covered areas. That means the snow absorbs sunlight rather than reflect it, making it melt even quicker. It’s important that shipowners operating on these routes switch to LNG as soon as possible to avoid these problems.

So how do you get LNG into ships? Where’s your gateway?

What the EU is doing with the Connecting Europe Facility, although not as quickly as we’d like, is very welcome, as is the role the IMO is playing but what we shouldn’t underestimate also is the impact port operators and owners can make. It’s certainly true that we’ve got to make sure rules are being implemented as they should be. Ports can wield the carrot and the stick in that regard. Some ports already do it by imposing cheaper port charges for cleaner ships. Extending the Sulphur Emission Control Area (SECA) to all the EU coastline would be a very relevant push for the use of LNG in shipping in the Atlantic and Mediterranean basins as well.

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And what’s stopping shipowners from taking advantage of that?

One of the barriers is that converting existing ships to run on LNG is a sizeable investment. The shipping sector is not one that typically overflows with money and the lifespan of a typical vessel is measured in decades. It’ll take time before we see fleets being fully retrofitted although we are seeing a lot of new builds. For faster uptake, shipbuilders and owners will have to be confident that there’s regulation and policy in place that will favour LNG, as well as ports and infrastructure operators willing to play the game.

For some, switching from polluting fuels is becoming an imperative. I mean, for how long are cruise ship travellers going to tolerate the black plumes of smoke coming from the ship chimneys? So there’s pressure from public opinion, but the main driver should be the environmental one because LNG is one of the few fuels that can actually deliver the cleaning up of the transport sector.

Using fossil fuel LNG must have a shelf-life, though, as you say it will only act as a bridge towards using renewable fuels.

It’s important to have that perspective because otherwise you are building infrastructure and putting in place frameworks that are basically a dead-end. Towards 2050, this sector should go completely or close-to CO2 neutrality. The IMO wants to halve emissions by 2030 and that is not going to happen using traditional fuels only.

EU policymakers are in the middle of drawing-up long-term climate strategies: how much convincing do they need to include LNG in those plans?

They need convincing because everyone seems to think that everything in heavy transport will eventually be electrified. But there is definitely a place for gaseous fuels. Of course, they’ll have to be renewable – or at least CO2-neutral – fuels otherwise we won’t achieve want we promised in the Paris Agreement. Interestingly though, most vessels these days actually run on electric motors but the power itself, of course, comes from liquid fuels.

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Where else are ship owners looking to mitigate their climate footprint?

One popular technology at the moment is scrubbers. These are a type of filter installed in the exhausts that remove a lot of the sulphur from a ship’s emissions. But these only move the problem from one place to another because what often happens to the sulphur is that it is dumped into the ocean, merely replacing the problem from the air to the water! Also, it does not address any of the other emissions, for example, nitrous oxides or fine particles. It is therefore a poor solution but, at the moment, probably the cheapest for existing ships.

Natural gas may be cleaner in terms of carbon emissions but it brings another problem: methane. Is that not a concern?

Methane leakage can occur at any point in the chain, from extraction to delivery and end-use. Marcogaz and our GIE members have demonstrated that the leakages from LNG terminals in the EU28 are minuscule, something like 0.002% of all gas sales in EU28. That’s not to say that it should be ignored! Every emission that can be eliminated should be. That includes the issue of methane slippage, which occurs in some engines.

Engine manufacturers are getting a handle on it but in some of the worst-performing engines, the gains in carbon emission reduction can be wiped out by unburnt methane escaping [as methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide]. Moving to renewable-LNG takes the CO2 component away and technology is still developing to address and eliminate methane slippage. The truck sector is already close to that point.

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Fleet renewal seems to be a big issue. What kind of cycle do ship operators move in?

Well for trucks it’s a relatively quick cycle. But ships are different because they stay in use for decades. Legislation is getting tighter though, so existing ships will have to either convert or be replaced. But while there is scope to get away with it and spend less money, of course, the operators will delay it as long as possible.

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