When Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) witnessed the first ramming of Germany’s first LNG terminal in Wilhelmshaven from the ship at the beginning of May, he looked the former enemy in the eye, so to speak. Four years ago, liquefied natural gas, especially from American fracking production, was a red rag to the local branch of the Greens – presumably in line with higher-level levels of the party. It is a well-known fact that the Internet never forgets anything: you can read all about it there. Now a top-ranking Green politician even traveled to the ceremony for a liquefied natural gas terminal, which is being built in a rush and without an environmental assessment. Times are changing.
The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine has turned many things upside down. Germany’s entry into LNG imports is a prime example of this. It is a story about the staying power of lobby groups, about surprisingly short distances and, despite all the understandable necessity, it also has an aftertaste that needs to be talked about. National opportunities and risks emanate from this apparently local construction project.
Malte Kirchner has been an editor at heise online since 2022. In addition to the technology itself, he is concerned with the question of how it is changing society. He pays special attention to news from Apple. He also does development and podcasting.
Cryogenic gas in a political ice age
At the beginning of the year, the topic of LNG seemed to have long been buried. For 20 years, various companies on the North Sea have been making plans and then discarding them. It is about the import of natural gas, which is liquefied at -162° Celsius and is reduced 600 times in volume. So it can be driven on ships halfway around the world. This creates network entries for the European markets that were previously unthinkable via pipe connections: for example from Qatar, the USA or Canada. The advantages of LNG and the location are praised in a several-year-old report that is bobbing on the website of the city of Wilhelmshaven. Only the financiers from industry lost their faith or moved abroad. That should only now change again with the global political ice age between Western-oriented states and Russia.
In Wilhelmshaven, however, people have shown staying power when believing in an LNG terminal: A huge green area directly behind the dike – with admittedly poor vegetation beforehand – was cleared and has been kept free ever since. In the smoke from the artillery in Ukraine, it seems and environmentalists assume, facts are now being created that previously contradicted others: LNG seemed uneconomical there, despite previous friction with Russia. Terminals in the Netherlands that are connected to Germany are not yet fully utilized – and the market is generally oversupplied rather than undersupplied.
New framework conditions
If the gas tap is turned on in Russia now, given the share of gas supply, this will undoubtedly change the framework conditions. LNG has had to do a number of things: Under US President Donald Trump, the purchase of American liquefied natural gas was intended to eliminate the trade deficit with Germany that he had criticized. At times, politicians saw it as a bridging technology for phasing out coal. And again and again it was brought up for discussion in order to counteract Russia’s power games. Here, too, there was the suspicion that America was putting pressure on, not to keep the Germans warm, but to sell its fracking gas.
Now, at least in the short term, looking ahead to the coming winter, there is a real and compelling reason to want LNG. Reservations about the funding method are less important when the alternative is to sit shivering under the Christmas tree in the cold living room on Christmas Eve. The question of price is also secondary. At best, the lack of a sufficient number of ships could still become an obstacle – this is probably more a question of price.
Pragmatists go full throttle
Federal Minister Habeck therefore spoke of pragmatism when he first rammed the jade. And those who act pragmatically can only approve of the fastest possible construction of a jetty for regasification ships and a 26-kilometer pipeline to connect to the long-distance gas grid. It solves an acute, pending problem. At least if the forecasts presented for the gas situation are correct.
And this is where the short distances come into play: Deadlines have been shortened and environmental assessments suspended to allow for the schedule. The state even seems to be so busy that the state port authority, according to media reports, pushed ahead with the construction activities, although the environmental authority had not yet given their okay. The majority of people like this kind of thing – after all, the opposite impression prevails, that authorities in interaction slow down themselves and projects.
Gas with aftertaste
The liquefied natural gas still has an aftertaste. It arises because the LNG project is based on plans that only appear to address the emergency situation, but have not really changed compared to before. Only the LNG Acceleration Act has written in the prayer book of the companies that want to implement the terminal that trading in fossil gas should be finite. Germany wants to be climate-neutral by 2045. By then, the plant must be converted to green hydrogen. However, the half-lives of such exit promises are currently evident in the debate about coal and nuclear power.
In the eyes of many, the fact that environmental organizations are up in arms against LNG makes them poisoners of wells in the current situation, although they only remain steadfast. And yes, some things overshoot the mark: It is not flourishing (water) landscapes that are being industrialized there, but ships with chemical substances for the PVC plant located directly behind the dyke have been being transported at the location of the LNG terminal for decades unloaded.
Nevertheless, the concern is not unfounded that facts for the long-term preservation of fossil fuels will be created in a coup d’état, which in the end will cost the public dearly one way or the other. Be it through the environmental and climate damage. Be it due to the high price for the imported gas, which one is obliged to purchase, or be it due to compensation payments if, in a few years, someone might want to push climate protection faster and phase out the gas.
Now comes the oath
Due to the state’s early building permit for the connecting pipeline, which has now been granted, an oath is made. The environmental organizations, which have already been given short deadlines for participation, can hardly put up with this affront. But how will they react in the current public mood? And how do courts assess the newly created situation?
If the LNG terminal comes through with its extremely ambitious schedule to go into operation at the turn of the year, then that would be a step backwards for the legal and regulatory bulwarks that were installed to protect the climate (or to prevent it). These would only be immovable until an emergency arises – and unfortunately there are more and more of them.
If, on the other hand, the skeptics prevail and slow the terminal down to the point of being unusable, this documents a state of incapacity for the state to act – itself, and shockingly, in a declared emergency.
In the best-case scenario, a compromise is reached: a much more tangible timetable for the conversion into a hydrogen hub without slowing down the process. In Germany something like that is unthinkable, many will reflexively doubt. But the approval of a liquefied natural gas terminal by a high-ranking Green politician was, until recently, too.
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