New York (AFP) – As winter approaches, European countries, scrambling to replace the natural gas they once bought from Russia, have adopted a short-term reform: a chain of about 20 floating terminals that receive liquefied natural gas from other countries and convert it into fuel heating.
However, the plan, with the first floating terminals set to transport natural gas by the end of the year, has raised concerns among scientists who fear the long-term consequences for the environment. They warn that these plants will perpetuate Europe’s dependence on natural gas, which releases methane and carbon dioxide that warm the climate when produced, transported and burned.
Some scientists say they worry that floating stations will eventually become a long-term resource for Europe’s vast energy needs that could last years, if not decades. This trend could set back emissions reduction efforts that experts say have not moved fast enough to slow damage to the global environment.
Much of the liquefied natural gas, or liquefied natural gas, that Europe hopes to get, is expected to come from the United States. The need arose after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine severed its ties with Europe and cut off most of the natural gas that Moscow had long been supplying. Along the US Gulf Coast, export terminals are expanding, and many residents are concerned About the increase in gas exploration and the resulting loss of land as well as the extreme climate changes associated with burning fossil fuels.
“Building this massive LNG infrastructure will trap the world in continued dependence on fossil fuels and climate damage for decades to come,” said Jon Sterman, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Natural gas contributes significantly to climate change—whether when burned, converted to carbon dioxide, or through leaks of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. However, European countries, which for years pioneered the shift to cleaner energy, have proposed bringing more than 20 floating LNG terminals to their ports to help offset Russia’s loss of natural gas.
The plants, which rise above homes and extend nearly 1,000 feet (304 meters), can store nearly 6 billion cubic feet (170,000 cubic meters) of LNG and turn it into gas for homes and businesses. They can be built faster and cheaper than onshore import terminals, although they are expensive to operate, according to the International Gas Union.
“Every country needs to prepare for a scenario where there may be a cut in Russian supplies,” said Nikulin Promander, an analyst at Rystad Energy. “If you’re an affiliate, you need a backup plan.”
Many environmentalists argue that the money for the ships — which each cost about $500 million to build, according to Rystad — is better spent on embracing clean energy or efficiency upgrades that can quickly reduce energy consumption.
Building more solar or wind farms, which takes years, will not immediately replace Russian gas. But with sufficient funding, Sterman suggested that increasing energy efficiency – in homes, buildings and factories, along with the deployment of wind, solar and other technologies – could dramatically reduce Europe’s need to replace all the gas it has lost.
Germany, among Europe’s strongest advocates for floating LNG terminals, expects five ships and has committed nearly €3 billion to the effort, according to Global Energy Monitor. Germany has also approved a law to speed up the development of stations, and has suspended the requirement for environmental assessments.
It is a move that upsets environmental groups.
“It is quite clear,” Sacha Muller-Kreiner, CEO of Environmental Action Germany, confirmed, “that the provisions of the law were developed in close dialogue with the gas industry.”
The German government and energy industry have defended their embrace of LNG terminals as an urgent response to the loss of most of their long-received Russian gas, which they fear will be shut down completely by Moscow.
“In such an exceptional situation, where the security of gas supplies in Germany is concerned, it is justified to speed up the approval process,” the German Energy Industry Association BDEW said in a statement.
Susanne Ungrad, a spokeswoman for Germany’s Ministry of Economy and Energy, noted that efforts are being made to reduce methane emissions in exporting countries such as the United States. As part of its drive to build LNG terminals, European authorities will conduct comprehensive assessments, she said.
Greig Aitken, an analyst at Global Energy Monitor, noted that the terminal, which is due to open near Gdansk, Poland, has signed contracts with US LNG suppliers that extend beyond 2030. This could make it difficult for the EU to achieve its goal of reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030.
Italy, Greece, France, the Netherlands, Croatia, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Slovenia and the United Kingdom have one or more floating LNG terminals, according to Rystad Energy.
In some cases, proponents argue, ships can help the environmental cause. They noted, for example, that as supplies of Russian gas dwindled, communities in Germany and elsewhere were burning coal, which typically produces more emissions than natural gas. An increased supply of natural gas will make this less necessary.
However, methane can frequently leach along the natural gas supply chain. So in some cases, the net climate impact of burning natural gas may not be better than that of coal.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that continuing to use existing fossil fuel infrastructure would cause the Earth’s temperature to rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). At this level, the heat is expected to exacerbate flash floods, extreme heat, severe cyclones, and long-term climate-change-induced wildfires that have claimed people’s lives.
said Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at Brown University.
In the United States, the largest export market for LNG bound for Europe, three new export terminals are under construction. An additional 11 stations and four expansions are in the planning stages. Long-time energy analyst Ira Joseph said some export terminals that struggled to attract financing are now seeing more investment and interest.
“What I’ve seen happen for the past couple of months – they’re signing buy-sell agreements, right and left,” Joseph said.
Rio Grande LNG, a proposed export terminal for the next decade in Brownsville, Texas, for example, appeared to stall last year in the face of environmental protests. But this spring, France’s Engie and several customers in Asia signed long-term contracts to purchase LNG from the terminal. Now, the next decade says it will likely get all the funding it needs.
Gas scarcity in Europe has escalated global LNG prices, prompting buyers in China and elsewhere to sign long-term contracts with suppliers in the United States. Rystad Promander said US LNG exports will likely grow by 10 million tons over the next year.
Floating LNG ships have been touted as a short-term solution to keep gas flowing for a few years while cleaner energy sources such as wind and solar are built. But critics say the vessel, built for decades, is unlikely to permanently cease operations after a few years.
Once the floating stations are built, they can be used anywhere in the world. So, if European countries no longer want floating LNG terminals as they transition to cleaner energy, ships can sail to another port, essentially limiting natural gas use for decades.
And in some cases, notably in Germany, some of the proposed floating stations appear to be paving the way for onshore stations to be built to last 30 or 40 years — well beyond the point at which nations must burn off fossil and environmental fuels, the groups say.
“After the war is resolved, and, as we all hope, peace is restored, will they really say, ‘Oh, let’s take it to the scrapyard?'” Sterman asked. “They won’t.”
Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.