Liquified Natural Gas — big promises and high environmental risks

An LNG tanker terminal

Under gusts of wind that are stronger than any that the Hauts de France has experienced in months, the waves of the North Sea crash against the red hull of a huge ship. The 345-metre-long tanker, Zarga — whose name is written in white letters in both Arabic and Latin — has docked at the main wharf of the Dunkirk LNG terminal. Two of the terminal’s five unloading arms are lowered onto the ship, ready to extract Zarga’s precious cargo: liquefied natural gas, or LNG.
Historically originating in Qatar and Nigeria, LNG production capacities have since exploded in Australia, Russia and especially in the USA. European imports are steadily increasing, with 2019 being a “record year” according to GIIGNL, the International Group of Liquefied Natural Gas Importers. The year saw a net growth in LNG imports of 75.6%, compared to 2018.

Many European countries see LNG as an option to counter Russia’s geopolitical dominance in gas supply. American LNG was marketed as the “freedom gas” for Europeans by former US Energy Secretary Rick Perry in 2019, who said that it granted “the opportunity for Europe to have a very substantial alternative support for Russian gas”.

Dunkirk, France is home to Europe’s second-largest LNG terminal

To become liquid, the gas has to undergo a few transformations. First, it must be purified of its sulfurous matter, then dehydrated, cooled to -30°C to separate it from the hydrocarbons, and finally liquefied. To do this, its temperature is lowered to -162°C and then it is compressed. Transformed into a liquid state, the gas occupies a volume that is 600 times smaller than in its usual form. It can now be more easily transported to Europe, thousands of kilometres from its source. This is why, according to a recent study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), “LNG makes a significant contribution to the diversification of natural gas supply in Europe”.

Tanks and (many) pipes

The Dunkirk terminal — the second-largest LNG terminal in Europe — was commissioned in 2017. On a 56-hectare site (the equivalent of 80 soccer fields), the white pipes where the liquefied gas runs sometimes curves, in order to maintain cold temperatures without damaging the piping. The gas runs into one of the terminal’s three storage tanks. These gigantic tanks are 50 metres high (they could house the Arc de Triomphe without any difficulty), and can each hold 200,000 m³ of gas. They operate on the same principle as a Thermos: they store the liquefied gas and keep it cold before it is sent to the national grid to supply homes and buildings. 

As soon as a customer requests it from Dunkirk LNG, the gas is sent back into pumps to be pressurised before being regasified. It passes through one of the terminal’s ten regasifiers, where it is heated to a temperature of 2°C, returning it to its gaseous form.

How do you defrost gas at -162°C to make it reach 2°C? By a process of “industrial synergy”. This is done thanks to a nearby nuclear power plant, one that can be spotted in the horizon —­ a huge building featuring red stripes. Indeed, the Dunkirk LNG terminal is located just a few kilometres from the Gravelines nuclear power plant.

The Gravelines nuclear power plant

The LNG terminal recovers 5% of the water discharged from the power plant. The warm water collected in this way­, which arrives via pipes whose colour varies between green and brown, runs along the walls to heat the LNG. This process takes place by heat exchange; the water and the gas never mix. Just the proximity of the heat to the water allows the liquid gas to become gaseous again. The water is then discharged into the sea at the temperature at which it was taken from the power plant.

In 2011, EDF and its partners, Total and Belgian gas giant Fluxys, decided to build the Dunkirk terminal. Five years later, in 2016, it was technically commissioned, but it was not until 1 January 2017 that its shareholders decided to put it into commercial service. In October 2018, EDF and Total sold their stakes in Dunkirk LNG and Fluxys became the majority shareholder. However, EDF and Total did not disappear from the radar, since they remained the main customers of the LNG terminal via “ship or pay” contracts which guarantee payment from customers regardless of their use of the terminal. In this case, the contracts span 20 years.

Out of the annual regasification capacity of 13 billion m³, 9.5 billion are therefore reserved for the former shareholders. This 13 billion m³ of gas represents about 20% of annual French and Belgian consumption. The terminal, located a few kilometres from the French-Belgian border, is connected to the markets of both countries. For the moment, according to figures from Cédric Vandenbroucke, Commercial Director of Dunkerque LNG, “in 2019, the terminal was used up to about 50% of its unloading capacity. A similar situation is expected in 2020.”

Ecological concerns

Where does the gas that arrives in Dunkirk come from? “From Russia and the United States, for half of the freighters; other diversified sources for the other half,” explains Juan Vazquez, president of Dunkirk LNG. “As an infrastructure operator, our role is to receive the cargoes to re-gasify them. We have no control over the origin of the cargo. If today this energy comes from Russia or the United States, it is because it is the cheapest there.”

Cheaper, but certainly at least as polluting as the gas coming via pipelines. Concerns about the environmental impact of LNG persist. The liquefaction process contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, since the gas has to be cooled to a very low temperature to transform it into a liquid. Then, there are also the fuels emitted by the LNG carriers as they travel long distances to get to processing facilities. In addition, much of the American LNG comes from hydraulic fracturing ­ or ‘fracking’ as it’s commonly referred to. From 2000 to 2015, the share of fracking gas in U.S. production increased from less than 5% to 67%, and continues to grow. However, this shale gas has fugitive emissions that are about 50% higher than conventional natural gas.

A fracking oil well in Colorado

In its June 2019 report “The New Gas Boom“, the Global Energy Monitor describes that there is “growing concern about the impact of natural gas on global warming. The perception of gas, particularly when produced by fracturing and shipped as LNG, has changed in recent years due to several new discoveries” such as the increase in the estimated level of fugitive emissions, the growing power of methane as a global warming gas and the importance of fractured gas in the North American production mix. The report concludes that “due to the additional energy demands and the potential for fugitive emissions from liquefaction, shipping and regasification, LNG is considered particularly detrimental to climate stability”. However, according to calculations made by Investigate Europe, the industry is planning to increase annual LNG import capacity by 54.51%, representing 116 billion m3 per year.

This article is part of our wider investigation into Europe’s gas trap. Click here to read more.