Europe Has a $130 Billion Natural Gas Problem

Illustration for article titled Europe Has a $130 Billion Natural Gas Problem
Photo: Getty

In 2019, the U.S. began officially pulling out of the Paris Agreement, rolled back tons of important climate legislation, and expanded fossil fuel infrastructure. Meanwhile last fall, Germany committed to reaching net-zero by 2050 late last month. And last month, the UK’s oil and gas industry committed to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, too.


Doesn’t that make you want to escape this hellscape and book a one-way ticket to London or Munich to sip tea and bask in the glow of just environmental policy? Well, maybe don’t just yet. It turns out Europe is fucking up, too.

New research from the Global Energy Monitor released Tuesday shows that European countries are planning to invest almost $130 billion of private and public funds into new gas-fired power plants, liquefied natural gas import terminals, and gas pipelines routed from Russia, Turkmenistan, and Israel. All that new infrastructure would give Europe the capacity to import 30 percent more natural gas that will in turn fuel the climate crisis.

The European move to import gas at a time when fossil fuel has to be cut is due in part to falling demand in Japan and South Korea. Demand is also rising slower expected in China, and Europe is taking in more of the gas those other countries don’t want. Last year, the continent imported 85 million tons of gas, more gas than ever before.

The new report shows the EU already has the capacity to bring in almost twice as much gas as it uses. So why expand gas infrastructure if they’re already oversupplied? The report says it’s because industry representatives with the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Gas (ENTSOG)—a trade group of pipeline and gas companies—are leading gas infrastructure planning.

“To say that the legacy industry influences the process is actually an understatement,” Ted Nace, the Global Energy Monitor’s Founder and Executive Director, told Earther in an email. The legacy industry directs the process.”


Nearly $40 billion or a whopping third of the planned investments in new natural gas infrastructure is earmarked from gas expansion plans in the UK and Germany alone. So much for reaching net-zero emissions! Greece, Poland, Romania, and Italy are also all expanding their gas infrastructure substantially.

This couldn’t be coming at a worse time. Fossil gas infrastructure can have a lifespan of over 40 years, which means that investing in new fossil gas infrastructure today could lock Europe into using more of it for decades. Scientists have made it clear that we can’t keep expanding fossil fuel infrastructure—in fact, we need to start shutting it down and replacing it with non-polluting energy quickly. Locking into more gas infrastructure would make that impossible. 


“In order to arrive at net zero emissions by mid-century, Europe needs to invest in a new energy system that uses combinations of renewable generated power, battery storage, and demand side management, rather than generating power from gas,” said Nace.

Unfortunately, this gas infrastructure expansion is part of a global trend. More natural gas is being extracted, which is making it cheaper and more accessible. Last year, gas was the primary driver of global carbon emissions growth, according to the Global Carbon Project.


“Natural gas usage has surged, with an attendant 2.6 percent increase in carbon dioxide emissions for 2019,” Rob Jackson, a Stanford University professor and Global Carbon Project researcher, said in a statement in December. “In fact, rising natural gas use accounts for 60 percent of fossil emissions growth in recent years.”

And carbon dioxide emissions aren’t the only problem. Natural gas processing and transportation also leaks methane, a greenhouse gas that’s about 120 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term.


It’s not too late to stop most of this infrastructure from being built, though. Construction has started on less than 10 percent of the proposed liquified natural gas import terminals. Ditto for many of the proposed European pipelines.

“It’s clear that we need to reexamine new investments in fossil fuels like gas, both to save on billions of future stranded assets as well as to ensure that clean energy gets the financing it needs in order to meet our climate objectives,” said Nace.


Earther staff writer. Blogs about energy, animals, why we shouldn't trust the private sector to solve the climate crisis, etc. Has an essay in the 2021 book The World We Need.


Times up, time to leave!

Ah the poster child of the fossil fuel industry, natural gas! The “my farts don’t stink” hydrocarbon they all seem to be pinning their long term survival on.

We have quite a bit of experience with this in Western Australia with the huge North West Shelf project and associated processing plants. They even managed to con the state govt into subsiding the 1500km pipeline to move a big quota of the stuff down to Perth for domestic use and of course, power generation! Central to the deal was of course tying up a long term supply contract effectively locking themselves in for years to come.

We have had some success here shutting down the Browse Basin project that was to have been a joint venture between Woodside and Shell. Originally they wanted to build a pipeline from the basin to shore, around 450km, landing it just north of the prime tourist town of Broome. Complete with a harbour and a series of LNG trains to process and ship it out to China. The protests were loud and rowdy and eventually they gave up on the land based option and turned instead to a floating processing facility. This too was eventually canned and for now the reserves under the pristine waters north of Broome remains untapped.

The curious thing about this was just how hard everyone fought to get it going. The conservative state govt made all kinds of threats to the protesters and all kind of wild promises to Woodside. When the feasibility study came in it raised huge questions about the viability, mainly the construction of a 1km breakwater for the harbour. They cautioned the engineering of something like that was untried. Broome is subject to tides around 8m daily and the whole area is subject to cyclones during the monsoon season. Despite that construction began, they cleared land and started building a perimeter fence. Protests at this point were getting heated and physical. The site is on traditional aboriginal land and the local people, especially anyone in tourism sided with them to form a formidable group.

Eventually Woodside gave up, the state govt was furious and even started threatening them with breach of contract. Personally I think the protests were only part of why they stopped, mostly the technical problems had really started to add up. Plus I think around that time the price of LNG took a dive so the whole viability was likely called into question.  

The only reason these European projects are still on the table is the money. There is a whole, massive industry behind the fossil fuel companies and it’s those who supply the infrastructure. Pipelines, processing plants, refineries, storage facilities and so on. Those guys are going to find other uses for their pipes and tanks, maybe water?