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LNG: US hype and German obedience?

Hardy Graupner
February 12, 2019

The US has a vested interest in selling liquefied natural gas to Europe's biggest economy as it produces a lot more than it needs at home. But is LNG really vital for Germany's long-term energy strategy?

LNG tanker in Rotterdam, Netherlands
Image: picture-alliance/ANP/L. Van Lieshout

What's the difference between LNG and conventional natural gas sent through pipelines?

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is just as odorless, noncorrosive and nontoxic as ordinary natural gas. The only difference is that LNG is natural gas cooled to roughly minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 162 degrees Celsius).

This is done to shrink its volume by around 600 times, which makes the resource — now a liquid — a lot easier to store and transport on huge tankers. Cooled down so much, it has an additional useful property: It's no longer explosive or flammable.

Who are the largest natural gas producers?

The United States is now the world's leading natural gas producer. Not least due to extensive shale gas fracking, the country boasts an abundant supply that is not just big enough to power the US itself for many decades — or even centuries ahead as some in the US believe; it also enables the country to export a growing amount of the valuable resource.

While the US is the biggest natural gas producer at 766,200 million cubic meters (27 trillion cubic feet) annually (end of 2017), Russia is a close second at 635,500 million cubic meters, followed by Iran and Qatar.

And who are the biggest LNG exporters?

As of December 2018, Australia has been the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, relegating Qatar to second place, ahead of Malaysia in third position.

But the United States is aiming to be among the top three by the end of this year. It has been massively adding liquefaction capacity to profit from enhanced global natural gas demand. The country is expected to add over 6 billion cubic feet of daily liquefaction capacity by 2021.

That would come on top of the over 3 billion cubic feet per day stemming from the country's Sabine Pass and Cove Point facilities.

Will the EU need more natural gas in the future? Will Germany?

The answer is "yes" to both. Nations across the European Union value gas as a much cleaner alternative to other fossil fuels. And they cannot rely for much longer on a steady supply from within the bloc.

EU27 gas demand projection

Norway's resources are depleting, and the Netherlands has already announced it will reduce gas supplies by two-thirds as of 2022 and halt them completely by 2030 because of unsafe extraction conditions.

Should the Russia-led Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project go ahead as scheduled, Europe's dependence on Russia will no doubt increase, but relatively cheap gas supplies make the deal so enticing.

The US administration, just like Eastern European nations, have vociferously advised against the Nord Stream project, and Washington has pushed its very own solution to the conflict — making more EU nations, and above all Germany, buy LNG from the US.

Does Germany really need LNG at all, and LNG from the US specifically?

According to the US Energy Information Administration, imports of LNG to the EU28 averaged 5.1 billion cubic feet per day in 2017, but remained below their peak in 2011. It states that "utilization of import facilities in the bloc has declined from about 50 percent to between 20-25 percent in recent years as expansions in regasification capacity far exceeded demand for LNG imports."

Those importing LNG in the EU have seen it as a useful diversification of their energy sources. That certainly makes sense, given that the countries in question have the necessary infrastructure in place to receive LNG from tankers.

In the case of Germany, including direct LNG deliveries in its energy mix may also be seen by policymakers as a move toward more diversification, but it wouldn't really need it despite the country phasing out both nuclear and coal power, and it wouldn't need need LNG from the United States.

Would Germany be technically prepared to receive liquefied natural gas through terminals?

Unlike EU nations such as Belgium and the Netherlands, Germany doesn't have its own terminal to import liquefied natural gas directly.

But at a German-US conference on energy security in Berlin on Tuesday, German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier strongly supported the construction of at least two such terminals in northern Germany. Brunsbüttel, Stade or Wilhelmshaven were mentioned as likely locations.

US Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said at the meeting his country was currently exporting LNG to 10 European nations, adding he was confident that Germany would join the group.

"The question is not if, but when," he said, noting that less dependence on Russia was crucial.