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The pushback against fossil gas begins

In This Week in Climate, we look at how the world is (slowly) moving beyond fossil gas.
Julian Moore
Jan 8, 2023 8 min read
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Just over a year ago, world leaders promised to make significant reductions in methane emissions stemming primarily from the extraction and development of fossil gas.

Five short months later, many of those same leaders effectively threw agreements from COP26 out the window when Russia invaded Ukraine. The war set off a scramble amongst the world’s largest economies for as much gas as they could get their hands on, climate consequences be damned.

And there were consequences. Despite a general downward trend in methane emissions last year, atmospheric methane concentrations rose to new highs, indicating that far more needs to be done to meet objectives.

But the harm caused by fossil gas extraction extends well beyond contributing to global heating, and this week officials around the world began to push back against pressure to expand its use.

Netherlands Nixes Big Gas Project

Officials in the Netherlands reported a 25% reduction in earthquakes caused by extraction of fossil gas after shuttering the prolific Groningen gas site last year.

Starting in 2015, residents near Groningen began complaining about earthquakes damaging their homes and properties, many of which are architectural relics from the early 20th century. No fewer than 3,330 buildings in the area have been demolished due to damage caused by gas-related earthquakes in the region since 2012, and another 127,000 homes have reported damage.

Those complaints went largely ignored until they became a political issue that began to influence voter behavior in the small country.

That led to a tough decision last year when officials decided to close the plant. Dutch Prime Minster Mark Rutte re-affirmed the decision to keep Europe’s largest proven gas reserve offline despite a severe energy crunch on the continent.

Even after 50 years of extraction, the site still holds 50 billion cubic meters of gas, nearly enough to replace all the Russian gas suspended from German pipelines after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The decision to close Groningen, unsurprisingly, irked the Netherlands’ German neighbors to the East. But Prime Minister Rutte has made clear he would only approve re-opening the plant in an “extreme” scenario.

That scenario seems unlikely in the near future thanks to the real-time effects of climate change. A winter heat wave in Europe shattered January records from Spain to Romania. The winter warmth has reduced the demand for gas for heating, allowing German fossil gas reserves to grow to 91% capacity.

In response to pressure from Germany, Dutch officials suggested that German utilities re-think the widely-criticized decision to shutter nuclear plants. German Prime Minister Olaf Scholz has since signaled he would reverse the nuclear ban and the Dutch government’s prioritization of local concerns appears to have played a role in bringing more low-carbon energy back into the mix.

Los Angeles Gas Ban

The Los Angeles city council voted last month to ban fossil gas in all newly constructed buildings starting this year. The policy is one of the first major steps towards making good on the city’s pledge to decarbonize new buildings by 2030.

Los Angeles follows other Californian cities such as Berkeley and Palo Alto in banning gas, but it is by far the largest city to do so to date.

The law does not explicitly call for a prohibition on the use of fossil gas in new buildings. Instead, it requires most new buildings to only use electricity for heating and cooking equipment by April 1st of 2023, although there is an exception for affordable housing units approved before June 1st.

That distinction is important. Legislators in states such as Florida and Arizona have passed a series of “pre-emption” laws which block local municipalities from passing their own restrictions on the use of fossil fuels.

Although it is unlikely that such a “ban on bans” would pass in California, where climate action has historically received strong support from both Republican and Democratic governors, the requirement to electrify buildings could thwart any potential future efforts to do so.

The strategy could also light the path for legislators in purple states like Colorado, where pre-emption laws have failed, but are almost certain to be proposed again should Republicans take control in future elections.

Steady but Slow Progress

Even with these developments, nobody should expect the demise of gas any time soon.

Fossil gas production is poised for huge growth in 2023, infrastructure bottlenecks and a lack of liquid natural gas (LNG) ports to receive shipments notwithstanding.

This week, the first regular shipment of American liquid natural gas (LNG) arrived in Germany to replace energy supplies that previously came from Russia before it launched its invasion of Ukraine.

Those shipments are only going to expand when a new gas site comes online in Houston later this year. Regulators there approved the Rio Grande export facility over objections of local environmentalists and community leaders. Fishermen sued to block the site, but an appeals court ruled in favor of the “least environmentally damaging” proposal to build the massive gas infrastructure.

Still, this week’s moves against fossil gas development indicate that the right political incentives can be just as effective at limiting greenhouse gasses as well-thought out climate policies.

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The Author

Julian Moore