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The Global Temptation to Keep Building Pipelines

“All of the above” is a bad energy strategy, but even some of the most forward-thinking countries can’t help falling for it.

A couple takes pictures of a Russian pipe laying vessel on the island of Ruegen, Germany, as the ship waits to continue work on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.
A couple takes pictures of a Russian pipe-laying vessel on the island of Ruegen, Germany, as the ship waits to continue work on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.

There’s a fundamental tension at the heart of a lot of climate policy these days: Supporting renewable energy is good, but not enough. Merely increasing renewables won’t enable the world to meet climate targets unless governments also stop greenlighting new fossil fuel projects. 

President-elect Joe Biden’s ongoing appointment announcements highlight this problem: Many liberal officials under the Obama administration, whom Biden is now naming to top posts, have previously portrayed natural gas as comparatively green, even though it’s still a fossil fuel and in fact releases copious quantities of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas. Since 2006, thanks to deliberate Obama administration policies, natural gas production has risen in the United States, making the country one of the largest gas exporters in the world. And while climate scientists and activists praise Biden’s plan to distribute $2 trillion to tackle the climate crisis, a lot of them worry his appointees still aren’t serious about curbing gas projects. 

The U.S. may have, for a rich country, a particularly bad record on climate change. But an addiction to fossil fuel infrastructure isn’t only a U.S. problem. Reluctance to say no to natural gas is also an issue in countries otherwise praised for their climate efforts. In Germany, where I live, the government has pledged to reduce its primary energy consumption by 50 percent by 2020. But the government has also approved the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. And while paused for a year due to international opposition, the project is now reportedly set to resume construction on December 5. It’s become a troubling example of just how hard it can be to halt new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Germany’s green initiatives are widely considered a model for green energy policy—although they’ve been challenged repeatedly by the far-right Alternative for Deutschland Party, or AfD. Since January 1991, with the initiation of the Electricity Feed-In Act, the German government has initiated policies to support renewable energy through feed-in tariffs to encourage energy providers to invest and transition to wind and solar energy. A more important turning point occurred in the early 2000s through the Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz (Renewable Energy Sources Act), a series of laws subsidizing companies that create green energy. Spearheaded by Green Party politicians Hans-Josef Fell and Herman Scheer, the proposal was to provide government incentives to have lower renewable energy prices—which lowers the consumer cost of renewable energy.

The environmental policies have reduced carbon emissions over the past two decades, even as electricity consumption remained stable. Renewable energy now makes up 27 percent of Germany’s electricity—and the government hopes to increase its share to 80 percent by 2050. In September, Economic Minister Peter Altmaier of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union Party proposed to make 65 percent of energy in Germany green by 2030.  

But recently the governing party’s environmental policies have encountered setbacks. In mid-November, the German supreme court ruled that Merkel’s strategy to phase out nuclear energy by 2022—a test case for phasing out coal plants, as well—was unconstitutional. The lawsuit was led by several companies that were part of the Nord Stream financing, arguing they were not adequately compensated for lost revenue. And despite the government’s attempts to lead the country toward renewables, investments are still being made in new natural gas infrastructure.

The Nord Stream 1 pipeline began in 2005 as a multicountry energy project with the Russian state-owned company Gazprom and two major German companies, E.ON Ruhrgas and Wintershall. Initial construction was completed in 2011. Since then, Scandanavian companies such as Alleseas and Orstead A/S have been involved in contracting and transportation. Nord Stream 1 is currently the longest underwater gas pipeline. In 2015, stakeholders announced that it would expand the original gas pipeline, which led to the formation of Nord Stream 2. So far, over 90 percent of the pipeline—2,300 kilometers (1,429 miles)—has already been constructed between Narwa-Bucht, Russia, and the north coast of Germany. As of November 2020, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has cost $11 billion, and if completed, it will operate for at least 50 years, despite Germany’s goal of being climate-neutral in 30 years.

It’s not clear that this pipeline meets any urgent demand: The German Ministry of Economic Affairs admitted in early November that German gas consumption has decreased over the last several years. Numerous foreign governments, including those of the U.S. and several countries in Eastern Europe, have expressed concerns about any project that might tend to increase Germany’s reliance on Russia. The project’s supporters, such as Federal Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party, have countered that, given Germany’s low gas consumption, the pipeline would hardly make Germany dependent on Russia for energy. They have also defended the pipeline as a private investment matter or even a necessary bridge solution as Germany transitions from nuclear power, which is highly unpopular in the country. 

Not everyone is on board. “We consider the construction of Nord Stream 2 to be completely wrong and unnecessary,” Green Party member of parliament Olivier Krischer told me. “We neither need the additional gas, nor should we invest this amount in fossil infrastructure now.” As a member of the Committee on the Environment, Conservation, and Reactor Safety, he has been following the construction of the pipeline closely and challenging the construction plans, as have his constituents. Deutsche Umwelthilfe, an environmental association, is taking legal action against the approval of the Nord Stream 2, hoping to prevent the pipeline’s completion. The lawsuit is directed at the Mining Authority in Strasland on account of methane leaks during extraction and transportation of the gas.

Like the U.S., Germany is going through a transition—and not just in terms of its energy usage. Longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel is preparing to step down in 2021. Regime change will leave some uncertainties, especially as the AfD—the third-largest party—continues to oppose climate agreements. As the country pivots from a combination of fossil fuels and nuclear power to a greater reliance on renewables, both social movements and new policies will be needed to sustain greener energy sources. 

Federal elections in the fall of 2021 could make a big difference in natural gas policy going forward. “If the Green Party confirms its poll results of 20 percent in the election,” Krischer told me, he’ll be more optimistic about the country’s energy and environmental policies aligning with the goal of transitioning rapidly from fossil fuels. 

But in the meantime, it’s possible that the pressure needed to slow or stop the pipeline could come from an unlikely source: the very American officials who have championed natural gas elsewhere. American critics of the pipeline have tended to focus on the way it could expand Russian energy influence in the region: That was the dominant reason the U.S. Congress backed a bipartisan bill to sanction companies involved in completing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline—a measure that took effect when passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act in December 2019. These sanctions were largely responsible for Nord Stream 2 being delayed a full year: Allseas, a Swiss company that had been engaged to lay pipes in the Baltic Sea, dropped out of the project an hour after the act was signed into law. 

With a new administration and new Congress entering in January, more pressure may be on the way. Biden opposed the pipeline when he was vice president, but mainly over the Russia issue: While Senator Kamala Harris opposed fracked gas during her presidential campaign, Biden has been cagier.

As the incoming Biden administration prepares to ramp up its climate diplomacy, reentering the Paris Agreement and appointing a new “climate envoy,” there’s more than one reason to voice concern about Nord Stream 2. It might be productive, however, for the administration to cite climate concerns, specifically, rather than merely Russian influence. And following that, it might want to turn its attention to gas pipelines in the U.S., too. Forestalling the impending climate crisis won’t just require modest reforms and green energy subsidies. It will take a green revolution specifically aimed at transitioning from fossil fuels.