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Environment

Gas from the Amazon or fracked in Europe?

Amid a heated national debate over fracking, the UK has received its first natural gas cargo from the Peruvian Amazon. Critical voices, however, are getting louder. Is there no better alternative?

While many people perceive natural gas to be far cleaner than its fossil fuel peers, coal and oil, the controversies surrounding its release, harvest and use are far from over.

Countries including Germany are restricting the use of hydraulic fracturing - fracking - but others like the United Kingdom (UK) continue to support shale gas exploration.

Recently, a new controversy has been added to the debate. The UK has received its first natural gas cargo directly from the Peruvian Amazon.

The expansion of the Panama Canal has allowed the Andean country to increase its export of resources and so, according to the Peruvian government, its profit.

Environmental campaigners, however, strongly oppose the move, arguing that it could damage the Amazon's delicate ecosystem and its people.

Camisea gas plant in the Peruvian Amazon (picture-alliance/dpa)

The Camisea gas plant is located in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon

Natural gas versus coal

After Germany, the UK is the biggest gas consumer in Europe. In 2015, over one-third of the islands' energy came from natural gas.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), a government advisory body, states that CO2 emissions from natural gas combustion have considerably lower global warming potential than coal over a 100-year period.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) have warned, however, that other greenhouse gases associated with natural gas have an even greater impact.

Methane, which leaks into the atmosphere during the production, delivery and use of natural gas, can be up to 80 times more disruptive than CO2 over a 20-year period, according to the EDF.

"Twenty-five percent of the global warming we experience today on our planet is due to methane," Mark Brownstein, a vice president in the climate and energy program at Environmental Defense Fund told DW.

Debate over fracking

While scientists keep analyzing the impact of natural gas on the environment,  the UK is immersed in a debate over the practice of hydraulic fracturing to extract shale gas, a natural gas trapped within shale formations.

The UK Government is convinced shale gas can ensure the country's energy security and encourage further economic growth. Official sources say there is no need to worry about the health, safety and environmental risks associated with fracking.

However, a wave of opposition against fracking has emerged in the UK. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace argue the practice will contribute further to global warming and will increase the risk of small earthquakes.

Greenpeace believes raising a debate over fracking's sustainability would only expand our dependence on fossil fuels. We should instead divert all investments to renewable energies, they argue.

The Amazon at stake

The UK government expects that fracking will decrease the country's reliance on foreign supplies and imports.

Only two-fifths of the natural gas consumed in 2016 came from national sources; by 2030 the UK is expected to import nearly three-quarters of its gas.

For now, the UK has decided to include Peru among its suppliers after the expansion of the Panama Canal, and an increase of Asian market prices.

But human rights organization Survival International has warned that gas extraction in Peru  threatens indigenous people and the Amazon's biodiversity.

Part of the Camisea gas plant in central Peru lies within the boundaries of the Nahua-Nanti Reserve, home to several uncontacted tribes.

Arlen Ribeira, representative of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA) told DW that indigenous communities from these territories do not receive any benefit from the sale of natural gas. Instead, he says, they have to face corruption and the constant pillaging of their territories.

Indigenous Nanti family (Survival International)

The Nanti community lives in volontary isolation in the Peruvian Amazon

A change of focus

"Shipments of natural gas to Europe surely help to avoid European coal consumption," Brownstein said. "But we have to be very aware of the risks that its production presents to the home country."

Brownstein stressed that the impact of liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments across the globe remains an open question, and methane leaks could play a huge role in its answer.

For him, banning fracking is not the solution. The debate should instead focus on how to reduce methane emissions from the natural gas supply chain.

Based on EDF findings, Brownstein claims natural gas facilities with almost zero emissions are a feasible reality, but more regulation is needed.

Camisea project in Peru (Survival International)

Protesters in the UK opposed the Camisea gas plant in Peru

Indeed, the CCC states that the "current evidence base suggests that well-regulated domestic production could have an emissions footprint slightly smaller than that of imported liquefied natural gas."

This would mean that a more sustainable use of natural gas is possible. Brownstein said, however, he is aware that a real attempt to reduce the effects of climate change is contingent on moving to zero-carbon electricity generation. Reliance on natural gas may hinder such a move.

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