Cleaner US gas can reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian energy
As President Biden meets with European Union leaders in Brussels and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, the EU and U.S. determination to reduce greenhouse gas emissions remains high on the agenda. Yet, as part of it, a Cold War-style contretemps has flared up, centered on whether U.S. or Russian natural gas exports are cleaner in helping the EU eliminate coal and cut its climate emissions.
President Putin recently asserted, without providing any evidence, that Russian natural gas exports are low-emitting. American officials, including Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, contend Russian gas is the “dirtiest form of natural gas on Earth.” While offering no new analysis of Russian gas, the Biden team has provided detailed data on U.S. gas emissions.
Getting to the bottom of these claims is crucial to informing Europe’s way forward on the role of gas imports in meeting growing electricity needs while also achieving aggressive near-term climate goals. Accurate data on gas emissions should also influence the EU’s broader climate and geopolitical strategy during its clean energy transition, including any role for the nearly completed Nordstream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.
The Russian government has systematically prevented measurements of emissions from its gas sector for many decades. What evidence there is suggests Russia operates a leaky, antiquated, unregulated system with high fugitive emissions of methane of at least 5 to 7 percent of total gas volume. Since methane has 85 times the warming potency of carbon dioxide, natural gas with leaks or fugitive emissions during production and transport of more than 3.5 percent is worse than coal from a climate perspective. This means the EU’s single largest source of gas has significantly higher greenhouse gas emissions than the coal it is meant to replace.
A major 2019 study by the U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory finds Russian gas piped to Europe has up to 22 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than European coal. U.S. liquified natural gas (LNG) delivered to the EU, in contrast, has up to 56 percent fewer total emissions than EU coal, the report shows. Overall, natural gas production in the United States has fugitive emissions of 1.4 percent of total gas volume, according to analysis from the Environmental Protection Agency done during the Obama administration.
The U.S. is also acting to lower methane emissions from its gas still further. Congress recently voted to restore Obama-era methane regulations former President Trump had repealed, mandating 45 percent economy-wide methane reductions below 2012 levels by 2025, and requiring oil and gas companies to check every six months for methane leaks and plug them within one month. The Biden administration has committed to even deeper methane cuts, particularly from oil and gas development — and proposed a crash $16 billion program to plug unused or abandoned gas wells and limit gas flaring. The EU imported 36 percent of U.S. LNG gas in 2019, although from a very low baseline, and even higher amounts last year.
Many climate advocates wish for an entirely renewable energy-powered EU electricity sector, but recent trends suggest that natural gas will play a major role in EU generation for years to come, since it stabilizes Europe’s power grid as increasing amounts of intermittent wind and solar power are used and current baseload power from coal and German nuclear energy is curtailed. In 2019, the last year of full pre-pandemic demand, natural gas was the largest source of electricity in the EU. More than 60 percent of EU gas was imported, with Russian gas providing about 45 percent of total EU gas.
Indeed, EU natural gas import share from Russia actually increased over the decade 2010-2020, despite Russia’s incursions into Ukraine and Georgia and illegal annexation of Crimea more than six year ago, among other geopolitical outrages.
A study by the European Parliament called “Energy as a Tool of Foreign Policy of Authoritarian States, in particular Russia” found Russia “uses gas supplies to punish and to reward….supply disruptions, price discounts or hikes, and alternative transit routes such as Nord Stream 2 and Turkish Stream, are used by Russia to further its foreign policy ambitions… The lack of transparency about Russia’s energy policy decisions contributes to this.” The study also analyzed the extraordinary reliance of Moscow on the European market for funding its autocratic government, “One-third of Russia’s natural gas production is exported. Almost all of which, some 87% in 2016, goes to Europe.” More than 40 percent of the Russian government budget comes from oil and gas exports revenues.
The EU, the world’s largest importer of gas, is clamping down on methane, too, and by the end of the year is expected to propose environmental standards. Those standards will initially apply only to gas developed within the EU, but may eventually include imports. In the meantime, the Nordstream 2 pipeline from Russian to Germany could be fully operational by the fall, with the potential to lock-in decades of methane-laden gas that will break the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions budget.
The EU should insist on uniform monitoring, reporting, and verification of natural gas emissions from all its import sources, procedures which over time should become the norm globally. The EU, U.S. and others should work together to standardize these measurements as quickly as possible. Otherwise, along with its already high geopolitical costs, the EU’s continuing addiction to high-emitting Russia gas will continue to weigh down Europe’s climate efforts, as well.
Paul Bledsoe is a professorial lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy and a strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute. He served on the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Bill Clinton, as an Interior Department official, as well as a U.S. Senate and House of Representatives professional staff member.