- CounterPunch.org - https://www.counterpunch.org -

Petroleum Wars in the Age of Climate Disaster: a Bridge Fuel Too Far

Russian gas pipelines to Europe (2021). Image Source: Samuel Bailey (sam.bailus@gmail.com) – CC BY 3.0


A Bridge Too Far
 was a 1977 World War II film, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring a bevy of A-list Hollywood actors, including Anthony Hopkins, Sean Connery, and Ryan O’Neal. In the desperately depressing and overly drawn-out epic, Hopkin’s parachute brigade tries to capture the bridge in question across a Rhine tributary at Arnhem in the Netherlands, while Connery’s airborne division dithers about after landing in the wrong area, trying to join the action before the pinned-down soldiers at the bridge are ripped to shreds by a German counterattack. As part of the wider Operation Market Garden of September 1944 to traverse the Rhine, the venture was deemed a failure, the Allies unable to secure a bridgehead at Arnhem or move on to Nijmegen and then into Germany, primarily because of bad planning, bad weather, and more than a few cock-ups, such as a lack of working radio communications.

Today, Europe is again at war, albeit a proxy war between Russia and the West after Russia crossed NATO’s red line by invading Ukraine or NATO crossed Russia’s redline after expanding to its borders depending on your allegiances. There may be a simpler explanation, however, that harkens back to the age of Standard Oil and the Nobel Brothers: the fight over the supply of petroleum and the control of imported energy to Europe. One thing for sure, Big Oil or indeed Big Gas is calling the shots, never mind the devastation in Ukraine where real people are dying and cities are being turned into rubble. Or that global warming is perilously increasing. Climate crisis? What climate crisis?

Having relied on Russia for 40% of its imported oil and gas, much of it via a tangled web of cross-border pipelines, Europe is now scrambling for fuel and warmth. Europe’s “4-corridor” policy of sourcing energy imports from Russia, MENA, central Asia, and Scandinavia is hurriedly being re-written. Russia is being given the economic boot as the global number-1 (US 21%) and number-2 (Russia 15%) natural gas producers fight it out over who controls the sale of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas per year to Europe and beyond. [1] At the same time, we’re being told the earth is heating up beyond repair, thanks to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide from ongoing fossil-fuel burning.

The main bridgehead is in northeast Germany, terminus of the $10-billion, Nord Stream 1 (NS1) natural gas pipeline that snakes its way underneath the Baltic Sea from Vyborg near Saint Petersburg to Greifswald. NS1 brings roughly a quarter of Europe’s piped energy, primarily Arctic and Siberian natural gas. The attempted certification of a parallel, $11-billion NS2 would have doubled Russian supplies to the same location, but was nixed by the United States, the first shot in the Great Russian Gas War. The US can’t sell its own fracked natural gas to Europe if Russia holds a monopoly, while NATO isn’t keen for the Kremlin to reassert its iron-handed influence in a post-Soviet world via expanded energy exports that already account for almost $200 billion in annual export revenues and 60% of the Russian budget. Most importantly, there is little point to a military alliance if your opponent is supplying the energy to your members. NATO would cease to be if Team Europe ran on Russian fuel.

Perhaps the confusion over the motivation for the latest petroleum war is an unfamiliarity with natural gas, whose main component, methane (CH4), is a potentially worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2). Associated hydrocarbon gases are typically found wherever there is oil, mostly methane (70-90%), with some ethane, propane, butane, and hexane. [2] Combusting at roughly the same temperature of about 2000 °C in air, methane and ethane are sold on as natural gas, considered a better fuel than coal or coal gas. Since both are invisible, odourless gases, the foul-smelling, sulphur-based odorant mercaptan is added to warn about leaks and potential explosions.

After 70 years of interventions in the Middle East, we’re used to the black stuff gushing from the ground, but fighting over an invisible gas is new. Most of us also know about the toxicity of oil and its main refined product, gasoline, yet we readily burn natural gas in our homes for heating and cooking, unaware of the dangers from noxious by-products and leaks. Methane comes with good PR too, thanks to a Madison Avenue style makeover. Brought ashore for the first time to the United Kingdom in 1967 near Hull, North Sea gas was given the more environmentally and commercial friendly “natural gas” moniker to distinguish it from coal gas, which is much dirtier to produce and very unnatural. Customers quickly absorbed the conversion costs for heating and cooking. Celebrity cooks swear by it.

Alas, natural gas is just as dirty and unnatural as coal gas when burned, producing all sorts of toxic waste from incomplete burning, chiefly carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulphide, ammonia, volatile organic components, and particulate matter, as well as carbon dioxide and water vapour. Incomplete burning of methane is bad in the same way that burning any petroleum product is bad. We get the same toxic waste and respiratory damage from burning gasoline, plastic, vinyl, or asphalt, smells not easy to forget.

At the same time, Europe is cutting back on coal, ostensibly to aid in the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, announcing a “phase down” at the 2021 COP 26 meeting in Glasgow, rather than a “phase out” as called for by the United States and other developed countries. The British PM stated we should “consign coal to history,” while the chief EU delegate Frans Timmermans eloquently reminded everyone that “European wealth was built on coal and if we don’t get rid of coal, European death will also be built on coal.” Although curtailing coal is certainly good for the environment, the main beneficiary was natural gas, starring as the supposed “bridge fuel” to a cleaner future. One ought to be careful, however, when eliminating a plentiful local supply, albeit the dirtiest of fuels, if the tap to the substitute is being squeezed in a conflict with your main supplier.

The oil and gas (O&G) industry is also casting itself as the good guy, claiming that natural gas is less dirty and unnatural than coal, because of a supposed “cleaner” burn, since natural gas emits half the carbon dioxide as coal when combusted. That’s like saying burning less-bad stuff is good. In fact, the global warming potential (GWP) of methane is 80 times that of carbon dioxide, although not as long-lived. Worse, however, methane becomes more environmentally dangerous than burning coal if only 3.2% of the extracted gas leaks. [3] Leaks are everywhere.

To be sure, most of us don’t care about the differences between liquid fuels and gases. We just want to run our cars, plug in our appliances, and heat our homes in winter (and cook like a master chef if up to the task). Alas, we’re all in the crosshairs now as energy prices rocket and global supply chains are impacted.

But shouldn’t we be cutting down on all fossil fuels to avoid climate catastrophe? As Dieter Helm acknowledges in The Carbon Crunch, “There is no escaping the environmental impact of both methane and shale gas production. … methane may be short lived in the atmosphere, but it is potent, and many gas pipelines – notably in Russia – leak a lot.” [4] Writer, environmentalist, and 350.org founder Bill McKibben noted that transitioning to methane as a bridge fuel because of the presumed lower global warming hit is “the equivalent of losing weight by cutting your hair.” [5] Is the new fight over who supplies energy to Europe a cynical diversion, another Titanic deck-chair rearrangement?

Oil and gas wells also leak methane through the ground into the atmosphere, often overlooked when calculating the carbon budget of the fossil fuel industry. Especially damaging are the thousands of “super emitters” in the US and Russia that spew about 10% of all methane emissions in the oil and gas industry, which itself emits about one-third of global methane emissions. [6] To be sure, leaking wells can be plugged, but only if they are found. Invisible to the naked eye, methane can be imaged using infrared sensing, including high-resolution, satellite spectral monitoring.

Unfortunately, sloppy operating procedures are the norm, especially in the Permian Basin, where leakage is 60% higher than the national average. [7] Satellite monitoring of atmospheric methane with more precise spatial and temporal resolution is improving and will help detect more leakages and fugitive emissions along with drones and ground-based observation. But without effective regulations to collect methane, standard bad practice will continue.

Over 40 million natural gas stoves, cooktops, and ovens in American homes also release methane via incomplete combustion, leaks, and at ignition. Up to 1.3% is unburned methane, equivalent to the yearly carbon dioxide emissions of 500,000 cars, while over three-quarters of the methane is released even when a stove is off. [8] Health-damaging pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) are also emitted and can trigger respiratory diseases. One rarely reads about the damage caused by methane, especially when refashioned as a clean-burning fix to coal.

Flaring is also a significant problem, where the associated gas is burnt instead of stored or piped because of inadequate storage facilities and lack of natural gas pipelines in remote areas such as the Permian Basin and Bakken Formation. Since the gas is cheaper than oil, companies can’t be bothered to capture methane, under no obligation to protect the environment. Typically, the associated gas is burned onsite instead of just vented to convert methane to less-potent carbon dioxide and remove volatile organic compounds. Not all flares burn cleanly, however, especially at older wells, some that have been around since the 1920s. [7]

Shockingly, almost 150 billion cubic metres of unwanted associated gas is flared worldwide [9], led by the United States, where flaring is permitted for 10 days to help a company get its fracking house in order, yet ongoing extensions are the norm. In the Permian, 3.5% of gas is flared, greater than the entire consumption of some states, while even more is lost in the Bakken. Even Russia and the Middle East are concerned about how much American gas is flared. [10] With no financial incentive to store unwanted gas and in the absence of appropriate regulations, flaring is the most cynical of industry practices.

Given the obvious respiratory and global warming damage, methane can’t be considered as a viable coal substitution or transition fuel. Of course, the oil majors and national oil companies (NOCs) aren’t in business to clean up the environment or stop global warming. Nor, in the case of NOCs, do they care enough to spend on needed social programs. They want to sell more energy, convincing the public that natural gas is good, whether for heating, cooking, or as a transition fuel to save the world. Amid rising temperatures and war in Ukraine, O&G profits are set to reach a record of over $800 billion this year, a 70% increase on 2021. [11] Any news of a green transition clearly hasn’t made it to the boardrooms of the oil industry.

What’s more, oil and gas is easier to produce, control, and less labour-intensive than coal, helping to keep workers in line. Unchecked by national governance, unions are powerless to counter a globalized petroleum industry. After the dust settled on World War II, the United States was responsible for 60% of global industrial production, beginning the dominance of American foreign policy and the U.S. dollar as the de factoworld currency. More importantly, Soviet expansion was countered as oil became a political weapon against growing labour unions and “left-wing European workers’ movements tied to coal.” [12] Back then, the enemy was left-wingers; today it’s the oligarchs (roughly $1 billion/day in O&G revenues).

Nonetheless, Europe has decided to ban Russian energy imports, come hell or high water. As one might expect with trillions of dollars at stake, the politics are fierce. Often accused of playing by 27 sets of rules, EU member states are being forced to rethink their energy supply, i.e., to “go native” by the end of the year, starting with a now ostracized Rosneft and Gazprom. In late 2021, Belgium announced the shutdown of all 7 of its reactors by 2025, a decision postponed for 10 years after Russia invaded Ukraine. Some even want to backtrack on the declared “phase out” of coal in case the lights go out. Albeit outside of EU stricture, Britain has over 400 years of coal supply should it choose to reopen closed mines. [13] Nobody wants to be left out in the cold come winter.

Nor does one size fit all. The Scandinavian countries are better equipped to go it alone. Denmark boasts extensive wind-generated power with some days over 100%, the excess electricity sold on to its neighbours via interconnectors along a growing international smart grid. Already a world leader in nuclear power, France announced it will build more nuclear plants of the cheaper and quicker-build small modular kind. Eastern EU countries of the former Soviet Union, however, are particularly reliant on Russia. Hungary and Slovakia want more time, while Bulgaria wants an exception.

To calm the infighting and present a united front, a reworked EU declaration banned Russian energy imports by tankers, yet allows supplies to flow by pipeline via the Soviet-era Druzhba pipeline through Ukraine, keeping the heat on in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic for the time being. [14] It’s one thing to counter Russian political power, another to shut off the gas.

Built in Soviet times to supply the Communist bloc, Soviet oil first reached eastern Europe in 1962 via the 4,000-km Druzhba Pipeline. Druzhba means friendship. Breaking up a cartel or bilateral price collusions doesn’t happen without a fight. For its part, Russia turned off the gas tap to Poland, Bulgaria, and Finland for not paying in rubles, covered for now by neighbouring imports, followed by the Netherlands and some firms in Denmark and Germany.

Replacing a vast, lucrative O&G infrastructure, integrated across a wide industrial base, won’t happen overnight. After their recent meeting in Berlin, G7 officials announced an ambitious goal of achieving a “highly decarbonized road sector by 2030” and “predominantly decarbonised electricity sectors by 2035.” [15] Presumably that means no coal, no gas, and no oil if the EU is serious about curtailing GHG emissions. The logic of combating global warming is strained if all one does is change suppliers.

To counter the pipeline politics, Europe’s fossil-fuel infrastructure is hastily being upgraded to supply methane via newly built import facilities at ports across Europe, fuelled in part by the vast amounts of fracked liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States. Instead of transitioning from fossil fuels, the US is ramping up its export market to keep the gas flowing as LNG exports to Europe increase month by month. [16] Albeit piecemeal, expensive, and slow to implement, Russian-controlled pipelines are being traded for non-Russian-controlled tankers.

Only 15% of Dutch natural gas comes from Russia and can be replaced by local stocks from Groningen – the once largest natural gas store in Europe, providing up to 30% of European gas since extraction began there in the 1960s – despite frequent earthquakes that have damaged hundreds of thousands of homes. [17] The UK is resurrecting a closed gas storage facility in Yorkshire, previously shut down as economically unviable, in the event that Russia stops all supplies to Europe and Norway starts sending gas to the continent to make up the shortfall. The U.K. storage facility can hold up to 12 days of supplies should the “reasonable worst case scenario” transpire. [18] Europe needs to have its inventories in place come October. Here’s hoping for a warm winter. Warm, but not too warm.

In the short term, Saudi Arabia is the main beneficiary of Russia’s isolation. The world’s largest company, Saudi Aramco, just posted $40 billion in Q1 profits. The Saudis are now shipping 10% of global oil and will likely increase the supply. Same goes for Norway despite divesting some oil stocks as well as Qatar, a country of about 3 million people, which sits atop the largest methane stock in the world, the North Dome/South Pars field underneath the Gulf that it shares with Iran. The United States is salivating over the prospect of fuelling Europe. The LNG trains are working overtime as the cryogenic tankers pass each other in the night.

No one seems overly worried about safety. Liquefied natural gas requires extra attention to ensure basic safety measures. As fuel sciences professor Harold Schobert noted, “Suppose a leak allowed some of the LNG to vaporize. Mixtures of 5-15% of natural gas in air are explosive. What if an LNG tanker blew up in Boston harbour? The loss of life and property damage would be enormous.” [19] In a hurry to join the gas game, Ghana has suffered 8 LNG explosions in 3 years. No one can afford to take stored fuel for granted whatever the hydrocarbon composition.

With the continued sale of natural gas, Europe’s Green New Deal is being scuttled, “net zero” kicked further down the target road: 2030, 2040, 2050 (when the global population is expected to reach 10 billion). Of course, net zero doesn’t mean zero gas. Running to over 2,000 pages in total, the recently proposed change to the EU’s “taxonomy of environmentally sustainable economic activities” pointedly included natural gas and nuclear power to paper over the inconsistencies and legitimize the ramp up of fossil fuels, followed by a supposed ramp down later when it becomes more convenient. Calls of greenwashing rang out as the pro-nuclear government of France squared off against the anti-nuclear government of Germany. Other countries less reliant on Russia, such as the Netherlands and Spain, objected to natural gas. The long goodbye keeps getting longer.

Despite the need to rid ourselves of an unsustainable dependence on hydrocarbons and an impressive line up of renewable-energy projects, the transition in Europe is not from fossil fuels to renewable energy but from Russia to anyone but Russia. Expanding NATO is more about maintaining strategic control over the flow of oil and gas into Europe, including securing new fields in the eastern Mediterranean. Old foes are being asked to show their allegiance. Venezuela, Iran, and Libya are our friends again. Bienvenido, Salam, Ahlan Wa Sahlan. Peace in our time, unless one is Russian.

Getting rid of fossil fuels is a tall order, but there is much we can do to reduce our reliance on old energy. A green transition ultimately means more competition and fewer monopolies, real elasticity in upstream supply, and fairer distribution for all. More wind, more sun, more storage. Conservation, insulation, heat pumps. At the very least, curtailing GHG emissions by 2050 means no more burning fossil fuels, and will require an annual investment of at least $1 trillion for the next 3 decades in Europe alone. Imagine spending $10 billion on solar and wind rather than building another pipeline or LNG port? The sooner we control our own energy the faster we cross the bridge. What’s the delay? If not now, when?

Controlling our own energy also means greater security. In the midst of yet another petroleum war, the UN secretary-general António Guterres called the renewable energy transition, “the peace project of the twenty-first century.” What’s more, as he further stated, if we want to survive we need to 1) Make renewable energy technology a global public good, 2) Improve global access to components and raw materials, 3) Level the playing field for renewable energy technologies, 4) Shift energy subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and 5) Triple investments in renewables. [20] There is a plan; it just isn’t going according to plan.

I expect that the movies are already in development for this war, scripted as ever to highlight the moral imperative of good over evil. I won’t go to The Methane Games, playing one supplier against another until we’re all dead. But I will happily pay to see Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, and Jennifer Lawrence star in the remake A Bridge Fuel Too Far, hopefully with requisite happy ending for all: the environment, our health, and Ukraine. The last battle for petroleum, the last battle for empire, the last battle for us?

 

Notes

[1] “Natural Gas Production by Country,” Energy, Worldometer, 2021.

[2] a.k.a. single-bond alkanes with general formula CnH2n+2, where n = 1 for methane and n = 2 for ethane, i.e., CH4 and C2H6.

[3] “Quantum-enabled camera detect methane leaks,” Photonics Spectra, November, 2021.

[4] Helm, D., The carbon crunch: Revised and updated, p. 212, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2015.

[5] Schwartz, J., “Differences on how to fight climate change,” The New York Times, July 13, 2016.

[6] Lauvaux, T. et al., “Global assessment of oil and gas methane ultra-emitters,” Science, Volume 375, Issue 6580, pp. 557–561, February 3, 2022.

[7] Kuchment, A., “Methane hunters,” Scientific American, September 2021.

[8] Lebel, E.C. et al., “Methane and NOx emissions from natural gas stoves, cooktops, and ovens in residential homesEnviron. Sci. Technol. 56, 4, pp. 2529–2539, January 27, 2022.

[9] Schulz, R., McGlade, C., and Zeniewski, P., “Flaring emissions,” Tracking report, International Energy Agency, November 2021.

[10] Meyer, G., “Surge in gas flaring sparks controversy for US shale sector,” The Financial Times, January 5, 2019.

[11] Cavcic, C., “Oil & gas firms’ profits set to smash records reaching $834 billion in 2022, Rystad says,” Offshore Energy, May 9, 2022.

[12] Bonneuil, C. and Fressoz, J.-B. (trans. Fernbach, D.), pp. 243,244, The shock of the Anthropocene, Verso, London, 2017.

[13] “When British Coal Was King,” BBC Four, November 4, 2013.

[14] Rankin, J., “EU debates watering down Russian oil ban in face of Hungarian opposition,” The Guardian, May 29, 2022.

[15] “G7 Climate, Energy and Environment Ministers’ Communiqué” [pdf], Berlin, May 27, 2022.

[16] “U.S. Natural Gas Exports and Re-Exports by Country,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, May 31, 2022.

[17] “Industry calls for more gas from Groningen after Russia cuts supply,” DutchNews, May 31, 2022.

[18] Jack, S., “UK in talks to reopen giant gas storage facility for winter,” BBC News, May 30, 2022.

[19] Schobert, H. H., Energy and society: An introduction, p. 528, Taylor & Francis, New York, 2002.

[20] “Five ways to jump-start the renewable energy transition now,” Climate Action, United Nations, May 18, 2022.