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Germany Exports Its Energy Failures

Earthquakes in Groningen, dirty coal mines in Poland and leaky Soviet-era gas pipes in Russia.

Olaf Scholz
German chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives in Rome, Italy, December 20, 2021 (Bundesregierung)

The Netherlands is forced to drill for almost twice as much natural gas this year as it intended to, partly as a result of higher-than-expected demand from Germany.

Germany requires an additional 1.1 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas, and the Netherlands is contractually obliged to provide it.

The Dutch need 2 bcm more for their own consumption plus 1.6 bcm to fill depleted stores for next winter.

Altogether production must rise from 3.9 to 7.6 bcm — still a fraction of the 72 bcm of gas the Netherlands produced as recently as 2013.

The Netherlands has small gas fields in the North Sea. The bulk of its gas is extracted from the northeastern region of Groningen. Or was, because the government had promised to shut down production there entirely.

Years of drilling have caused increasingly violent earthquakes. The government has so far paid €220 million in compensation to owners of damaged homes. Another €250 million may be needed. A parliamentary inquiry into the government’s handling of the damage is due to begin next week.

Which makes Germany’s request especially awkward for the Netherlands’ prime minister, Mark Rutte. He has asked the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, for alternatives.

There are alternatives

Germans could use less gas.

They consumed approximately 100 bcm last year. Domestic production meets just 5 percent of demand. 12 percent of Germany’s gas comes from the Netherlands, 32 percent from Russia.

The bulk of the gas is used for heating. To reduce demand, the German government spent €6 billion on home insulation last year. Progress has been slower than anticipated, hence the request for 1.1 bcm more.

Germany also generates 15 percent of its electricity from burning gas. That share has gone up, along with renewables, as Germany is phasing out coal and nuclear.

Germany’s energy mix looks increasingly “clean”, and to be fair it has built a lot of solar farms and wind parks. But it has also exported its problems. Earthquakes in the Netherlands are not the only consequence of Germany’s energy transition. So are dirty coal mines in Poland and leaky Soviet-era gas pipes in Russia.

Coal mines

Germany is still the world’s largest producer of lignite, or brown coal. China isn’t far behind. When lignite is burned to generate power, it emits twice as much carbon dioxide (CO₂) as natural gas. Coal accounts for a fifth of Germany’s CO₂ emissions.

The last German government planned to stop mining and burning coal by 2038. Scholz’ “traffic light” coalition of Social Democrats, liberals and Greens has brought that deadline forward to 2030.

Scholz’ center-right predecessor, Angela Merkel, also retired Germany’s seventeen nuclear reactors in the wake of the 2011 accident in Fukushima, Japan.

The share of nuclear in Germany’s energy mix has fallen from a quarter to 13 percent since. The country’s three remaining reactors to due to be switched off this year.

Germany might have been able to replace coal or nuclear with renewables in a decade, but not both. It must import energy, including coal and coal power from Poland, which does not share Germany’s urgency about phasing out this dirtiest of fossil fuels.

Poland intends to keep mining coal into the 2040s and is the only member of the EU that has not committed to reduce net CO₂ emissions to zero by 2050.

Leaky pipelines

Germany’s main fallback is gas. Consumption is up from 80 bcm in 2016 and is projected to rise to 110 bcm in 2034.

The EU as a whole got 38 percent of its gas from Russia last year, down from 41 percent in 2018. The share of liquified natural gas (LNG) imports — primarily from America and Qatar — is up from 11 to 18 percent.

Unlike all other coastal European nations, Germany has not built LNG import facilities. The Netherlands’ Financieele Dagblad reports that Gasunie and Vopak, which operate the LNG terminal of Rotterdam, tried for five years to get a similar terminal off the ground in Hamburg, but were resisted by bureaucracy and environmental groups.

Germany instead expanded Nord Stream, the Baltic Sea pipeline that allows Russia to circumvent Ukraine and other transit nations in Eastern Europe. It piped 60 bcm of gas to Germany last year. Nord Stream 2 will double the network’s capacity.

Nord Stream had to be up-to-standard to get construction permits from Denmark and Germany. Pipelines in Russia itself are so poorly maintained that they emit large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than CO₂. Russia is the world’s largest methane polluter.

Germany didn’t cause earthquakes Groningen. It didn’t persuade the Poles to keep mining coal. (It didn’t have to.) It isn’t responsible for Russia’s lack of concern for the environment. But it isn’t helping to solve these problems either; it is making them worse.