As winter nears, European nations, desperate to replace the natural gas they once bought from Russia, have embraced a short-term fix: A series of roughly 20 floating terminals that would receive liquefied natural gas from other countries and convert it into heating fuel.
Yet the plan, with the first floating terminals set to deliver natural gas by year’s end, has raised alarms among scientists who fear the long-term consequences for the environment. They warn that these terminals would perpetuate Europe’s reliance on natural gas, which releases climate-warming methane and carbon dioxide when it’s produced, transported and burned.
Some scientists say they worry that the floating terminals will end up becoming a long-term supplier of Europe’s vast energy needs that could last years, if not decades. Such a trend could set back emission-reduction efforts that experts say haven’t moved fast enough to slow the damage being done to the global environment.
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 shattered its ties with Europe and led to a cutoff of most of the natural gas that Moscow had long provided. Along the U.S. Gulf Coast, export terminals are expanding, and many residents there are alarmed about the rise in drilling for gas and the resulting loss of land as well as extreme weather changes associated with burning fossil fuels.
“Building this immense LNG infrastructure will lock the world into continued reliance on fossil fuels and continued climate damage for decades to come,” said John Sterman, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Natural gas contributes significantly to climate change — both when it’s burned, becoming carbon dioxide, and through leakages of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas. Yet European nations, which for years have been leaders in shifting to cleaner energy, have proposed bringing more than 20 floating LNG terminals into their ports to help compensate for the loss of Russia’s natural gas.
The terminals, which tower over homes and stretch nearly 1,000 feet (304 meters), can store roughly 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 more cheaply than onshore import terminals, though they’re costlier 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 Nikoline Bromander, an analyst with Rystad Energy. “If you are dependent, you need to have a backup plan.”
Many environmental scientists argue that the money being earmarked for the ships — which cost about $500 million each to build, according to Rystad — would be better spent on rapidly adopting clean-energy or efficiency upgrades that could reduce energy consumption.
Constructing more solar or wind farms, which takes years, wouldn’t immediately replace Russian gas. But with adequate funding, Sterman suggested, greater energy efficiencies — in homes, buildings and factories, along with the deployment of wind, solar and other technologies — could vastly reduce Europe’s need to replace all the gas it’s lost.
Germany, among Europe’s strongest advocates for the floating LNG terminals, is expecting five of the ships and has committed roughly 3 billion euros to the effort, according to Global Energy Monitor. Germany has also approved a law to fast-track the terminals’ development, suspending the requirement for environmental assessments.
It’s a move that troubles environmental groups.
“It’s totally obvious,” asserted Sascha Müller-Kraenner, CEO of Environmental Action Germany, that “the provisions of the law were developed in close dialogue with the gas industry.”
Germany’s government and energy industry have defended their embrace of the LNG terminals as an urgent response to the loss of most of the Russian gas they had long received, which they fear Moscow will shut off completely.
“In an exceptional situation such as this, where it’s a matter of Germany’s gas supply security, it is justified to accelerate the approval process,” Germany’s energy industry association, BDEW, said in a statement.
Susanne Ungrad, a spokeswoman for Germany’s Economy and Energy Ministry, noted that efforts are being made to lower methane emissions in exporting countries like the United States. And she said that in pursuing the construction of LNG terminals, Europe authorities will conduct comprehensive assessments.
Greig Aitken, an analyst at Global Energy Monitor, noted that a terminal that’s set to open near Gdansk, Poland, has signed contracts with American LNG suppliers that extend well past 2030. That could make it problematic for the European Union to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030.
Italy, Greece, France, the Netherlands, Croatia, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Slovenia and the U.K. all have one or more floating LNG terminals planned, according to Rystad Energy.
In some cases, proponents argue, the ships could aid the environmental cause. They note, for example, that as Russian gas supplies have dwindled, communities in Germany and elsewhere have been burning coal, which typically produces more emissions than natural gas. Increasing the supply of natural gas would make this less necessary.
Still, methane can frequently leak along the natural gas supply chain. So in some cases, the net climate effect of burning natural gas may be no better than coal.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that continuing to use the fossil fuel infrastructure already in place would cause global warming to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit). At that level, heat would be expected to worsen the flash floods, extreme heat, intense hurricanes and longer-burning wildfires that have resulted from climate change and have cost lives.
“It is a little disheartening to see Europe, which has been the seat of so much energy and action and bold emissions targets, being home to this particular way with doubling down on fossil fuel infrastructure,” said Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at Brown University.
In the United States, the largest export market for Europe-bound LNG, three new export terminals are under construction. Eleven additional terminals and four expansions are in the planning stages. Some export terminals that had struggled to attract financing are now seeing more investment and interest, said Ira Joseph, a longtime energy analyst.
“What you’ve seen happen over the last two months — they’re signing up sales and purchase agreements, right and left,” Joseph said.
Rio Grande LNG, an export terminal proposed by Next Decade in Brownsville, Texas, for example, appeared to stall last year in the face of environmental protests. But this spring, a French company, Engie, and several clients in Asia signed long-term contracts to buy LNG from the terminal. Now, Next Decade says it’s likely to obtain all the financing it needs.
Europe’s gas scarcity has escalated global LNG prices, leading buyers in China and elsewhere to sign long-term contracts with suppliers in the United States. American LNG exports will likely grow by 10 million tons over the next year, said Bromander, the Rystad analyst.
The floating LNG ships have been billed as a short-term solution to keep gas flowing for a few years while cleaner energy sources like wind and solar are built up. But critics say it’s unlikely that a ship built to last decades would permanently halt operations after a few years.
Once the floating terminals are built, they can be used anywhere in the world. So if European nations no longer want floating LNG terminals as they transition to cleaner energy, the ships could sail off to another port, essentially locking in 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 on-shore terminals that would be built to last 30 or 40 years — well past the point that nations should be burning fossil fuels, environmental groups say.
“After the war is resolved and, as we all hope, peace is restored, are they really going to say, ‘Oh, let’s take it to the scrap yard?,’” Sterman asked. “They’re not going to do that.”