The geopolitics of natural gas explained
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It’s probably helpful to start at home. The map below shows the complex network of gas pipelines that criss-cross the continental United States, giving an idea of the scale of the network at the national level.
You will notice the complexity shown along the Gulf Coast, from southern Texas through Louisiana. It’s largely a function of offshore mining, as you’ve probably guessed. West Texas and Oklahoma are areas associated with fossil fuel extraction, so no real surprises.
But there’s also this network of pipelines running from western New York to West Virginia. It is not a region generally considered a center for drilling operations. And yet it is. This group of pipelines straddles the Marcellus Formation, a bed of shale buried beneath these states.
Just over a decade ago, the US energy industry experienced a revolution. The development of new hydraulic fracturing systems – using water to break up shale to allow pockets of natural gas to escape – has turned deposits like the Marcellus Formation into gold mines. North Dakota spent years at the top of the state’s population growth list as people moved there to extract oil and gas from the Bakken formation. The “fracking” boom was born.
This boom overlapped with domestic politics in an important way. Just as new natural gas fields were unlocked, public awareness of climate change began to soar. Activists and then politicians began advocating for the phasing out of coal-fired power plants – a process facilitated by the sudden availability of cheap natural gas, which also burns cleaner than coal. Power plants began to be retrofitted to burn gas.
You can see this change below. In 2005, 60% of electricity production came from the combustion of coal; less than 10% came from gas combustion. By 2021, natural gas had jumped to 35% of production, while coal had fallen to around 30%.
This transition was theoretically a net benefit for the climate. Burning coal produces carbon dioxide, the most abundant greenhouse gas in the global atmosphere; burning natural gas creates much less. (Greenhouse gases are those that can absorb heat that would otherwise escape from the atmosphere into space. Often the captured heat is redirected back to Earth.) But there was a problem: natural gas is methane, a good plus powerful greenhouse gas. It is over 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. And extracting methane from the ground often meant that some escaped into the atmosphere, mitigating the climate benefits.
As the United States debated the interplay between combating climate change and energy availability, similar discussions were taking place in Europe. Over the past decade, a number of European countries have implemented plans to phase out the use of coal in an effort to help reduce global carbon dioxide emissions. But getting out of coal means using something else to produce electricity. Since there were also calls to end the use of nuclear reactors for production, this meant either a rapid increase in renewable energy or a conversion to natural gas.
Over the past 30 years, Western Europe (i.e. members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) has seen an increase in its use of natural gas relative to other energy sources . In many European countries, however, hydraulic fracturing is banned, which means it is necessary to import natural gas to meet demand.
Fortunately for Western Europe, there was a neighboring nation with abundant reserves of natural gas. Unfortunately for Western Europe, that nation was Russia.
As in the United States, a network of pipelines criss-crosses Europe. But we have an advantage they don’t have: almost all of our pipelines are contained within the same country. In Europe, the web sits above the existing network of national borders. That means pipelines bringing gas west from Russia often have to cross multiple countries, sometimes subjecting them to varying geopolitical pressures and laws.
In 2011, a pipeline was built that avoided much of this problem. Stretching from Russia in the northeastern corner of the Baltic Sea to southwestern Germany, the Nord Stream pipeline provided a direct connection between these two countries. Earlier this year, Nord Stream 2 was completed, largely running alongside the first iteration, albeit from a different location. Its main advantage was that it doubled the amount of gas that could be carried.
The United States opposed the new pipeline for at least two main reasons.
The first was that it strengthened economic ties between Europe and Russia — and made Europe increasingly dependent on Russia for its energy.
The second was economic: the United States is also in the business of selling gas, and there has been pressure to build terminals from which liquefied natural gas (LNG) can be shipped. But the infrastructure for transporting gas across the Atlantic Ocean is still largely under development. The pipelines to Russia are already there.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine. Suddenly, Europe’s dependence on Russian gas has become a serious problem. The international community has imposed tough sanctions on Russia, but the battle for importing Russian oil and gas has been much more tense. Germany froze the Nord Stream 2 project – but Nord Stream 1 was still flowing. Since then, Russia has used its control over this pipeline to pressure Western Europe. On several occasions, Russia has claimed that it must restrict or stop the transport of gas through the pipeline, in particular blaming the sanctions on a lack of availability of parts. Earlier this month, Russia completely shut down Nord Stream 1.
Which brings us to the last days. On Monday, Sweden detected a pair of underwater explosions in the area where leaks in Nord Stream pipelines began. The implication is that the lines have been sabotaged. On Wednesday, German officials expressed concern that the lines could not be repaired, rendering them permanently unusable.
First, of course, there is the climate issue. A huge amount of methane was released when the pipelines ruptured, perhaps 500 metric tons per hour. More methane release means more warming, but gradually.
But there are also pressing geopolitical questions that need to be answered. Who damaged the pipes? Why? How does this affect natural gas supply in Europe as winter approaches?
All of this – history, politics, science, conflict – manifesting itself in the placid bursting of bubbles on the surface of the sea.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that natural gas does not release greenhouse gases when burned. It releases carbon dioxide, but at a significantly lower level than burning coal. This article has been corrected.