European project for floating gas terminals raises climate fears

NEW YORK (AP) — As winter approaches, European nations, desperate to replace the natural gas they once bought from Russia, have adopted a short-term solution: a string of about 20 floating terminals which would receive liquefied natural gas from other countries and turn it into heating fuel.

Still, the plan, with the first floating terminals due to deliver natural gas by the end of the year, has raised alarm among scientists who fear the long-term consequences for the environment. They warn that these terminals would perpetuate Europe’s dependence on natural gas, which releases climate-warming methane and carbon dioxide when produced, transported and burned.

Some scientists say they fear the floating terminals could end up becoming a long-term supplier of Europe’s vast energy needs that could last for years or even decades. Such a trend could set back emissions reduction efforts that experts say have not been fast enough to slow global environmental damage.

Much of the liquefied natural gas, or LNG, that Europe hopes to receive is expected to come from the United States. The need arose after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine severed its ties with Europe and led to a cut off of much of the natural gas that Moscow had long supplied. Along the US Gulf Coast, export terminals are growing and many locals are alarmed on the increase in gas drilling and the resulting loss of land as well as the extreme climate change associated with the burning of fossil fuels.

“Building this massive LNG infrastructure will lock the world into continued fossil fuel addiction and continued climate damage for decades to come,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology climatologist John Sterman.

Natural gas contributes significantly to climate change – both when it is burned, becoming carbon dioxide, and through the leakage of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas. Yet European nations, which for years have been leaders in the shift to cleaner energy, have offered to install more than 20 floating LNG terminals in their ports to help offset the loss of Russian natural gas.

The terminals, which tower over homes and span almost 1,000 feet (304 meters), can store about 6 billion cubic feet (170,000 cubic meters) of LNG and convert it into gas for homes and businesses. They can be built faster and cheaper than onshore import terminals, although they are more expensive to operate, according to the International Gas Union.

“Each country needs to prepare for a scenario where there could be a reduction in Russian supplies,” said Nikoline Bromander, an analyst at Rystad Energy. “If you’re addicted, you need to have a backup plan.”

Many environmental scientists say the money earmarked for the ships – which cost around $500 million each to build, according to Rystad – would be better spent on early adoption of clean energy or efficiency improvements that could reduce consumption. of energy.

Building more solar or wind farms, which takes years, would not immediately replace Russian gas. But with adequate funding, Sterman suggested, greater energy efficiency – in homes, buildings and factories, as well as the deployment of wind, solar and other technologies – could drastically reduce Europe’s need to replace everything. waste gas.

Germany, one of Europe’s strongest proponents of floating LNG terminals, is expecting five of the ships and has committed around 3 billion euros to the effort, according to Global Energy Monitor. Germany also approved a law to speed up the development of terminals, suspending the requirement for environmental assessments.

It is a decision that worries environmental groups.

“It is quite obvious”, asserted Sascha Müller-Kraenner, CEO of Environmental Action Germany, that “the provisions of the law were drawn up in close consultation with the gas industry”.

The German government and energy industry have defended their adoption of LNG terminals as an urgent response to the loss of much of the Russian gas they have long received, which they fear Moscow will shut down completely.

“In an exceptional situation like this, where the security of gas supply to Germany is concerned, it is justified to speed up the approval process,” said the German association of the energy industry, BDEW, in a statement.

Susanne Ungrad, spokeswoman for the German Ministry of Economics and Energy, noted that efforts are being made to reduce methane emissions in exporting countries like the United States. And she said that in continuing to build LNG terminals, European authorities will carry out comprehensive assessments.

Greig Aitken, an analyst at Global Energy Monitor, noted that a terminal slated to open near Gdansk, Poland, has signed contracts with U.S. LNG suppliers that extend well beyond 2030. That could make it difficult for the European Union to achieve its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030.

Italy, Greece, France, the Netherlands, Croatia, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Slovenia and the United Kingdom have all planned one or more floating LNG terminals, according to Rystad Energy.

In some cases, according to the promoters, the ships could help the environmental cause. They note, for example, that as Russian gas supplies have dwindled, communities in Germany and elsewhere have burned coal, which typically produces more emissions than natural gas. Increasing the supply of natural gas would make this less necessary.

Yet methane can frequently leak along the natural gas supply chain. Thus, in some cases, the net climate effect of burning natural gas may not be better than that of coal.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that continuing to use the fossil fuel infrastructure already in place will lead to global warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). At this level, the heat is expected to worsen flash floods, extreme heat, intense hurricanes and longer lasting wildfires that have resulted from climate change and cost lives.

“It’s kind of disheartening to see Europe, which has been home to so much energy and bold action and emissions targets, harboring this particular way by doubling down on fossil fuel infrastructure,” he said. said Kim Cobb, climatologist at Brown. University.

In the United States, the leading export market for LNG to Europe, three new export terminals are under construction. Eleven additional terminals and four extensions are in the planning stages. Some export terminals that had struggled to attract financing are now seeing more investment and interest, said longtime energy analyst Ira Joseph.

“What you’ve seen happen in the last two months – they’re signing sell-and-buy deals, right and left,” Joseph said.

Rio Grande LNG, an export terminal proposed by Next Decade in Brownsville, Texas, for example, appeared to stagnate last year in the face of environmental protests. But this spring, a French company, Engie, and several customers in Asia signed long-term contracts to buy LNG at the terminal. Now, Next Decade says it’s likely to get all the funding it needs.

The gas shortage in Europe has pushed up global LNG prices, prompting buyers in China and elsewhere to sign long-term contracts with suppliers in the United States. US LNG exports are likely to increase by 10 million tonnes over the next year, Rystad analyst Bromander said.

Floating LNG ships have been touted as a short-term solution to keep the gas going for a few years while cleaner energy sources like wind and solar develop. But critics say a ship built to last decades is unlikely to cease operations for good after a few years.

Once the floating terminals are built, they can be used anywhere in the world. So if European countries want no more floating LNG terminals in their transition to cleaner energy, ships could sail to another port, essentially blocking the use of natural gas for decades.

And in some cases, particularly in Germany, some of the proposed floating terminals appear to be paving the way for onshore terminals that would be built to last 30 or 40 years – far beyond the point where nations would have to burn fossil fuels, protect the environment say the groups.

“Once the war is resolved and, as we all hope, peace is restored, are they really going to say, ‘Oh, let’s scrap it?'” Sterman asked. “They’re not going to do that.”


AP Writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

Mary I. Bruner