Liquified Natural Gas Is No Solution to the Energy Crisis

The reason can be summed up in three words: boil-off gas.

LNG ship
An LNG tanker at jetty in Malta.

Felix Cesare / Getty Images

After Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the turning off of Russian gas to Europe, there was panic that there wouldn't be enough natural gas—or methane, as we prefer to call it—to get through the winter. European countries immediately started ordering all the liquified natural gas (LNG) they could get their hands on; LNG imports are up 65% over 2021.

In fact, at the time of writing, dozens of LNG tankers are floating around Europe because there are not enough ports with "regasification" capacity to unload them all. But also, because warm weather in Europe has reduced demand for gas and the price has dropped. "More than 30 tankers holding liquefied natural gas are floating just off Europe’s shoreline as energy traders bet the autumn price reprieve prompted by robust supplies and warm weather will prove to be fleeting," reports the Financial Times.

According to Marine Insight: "There are over 35 LNG-loaded vessels that are drifting around the Mediterranean, off Spain, with eight ships anchored off the Bay of Cadiz; analysts, traders, and sources associated with the LNG terminals are accustomed to the situation mentioned on Monday. The cargo backlog has reportedly raised alarming concerns regarding Europe’s capability to process LNG supplies required to compensate for the lack of Russia’s pipeline supply."

The process of making LNG

Ainun Rahmania and Widodo W. Purwanto

All these ships just sitting around and waiting to unload are exacerbating a fundamental problem with LNG: boil-off gas (BOG). This is the release of methane into the atmosphere as the tanks warm up, as well as the losses when loading and unloading LNG at the ports. According to one study, "Simulation of Boil-Off Gas Effect Along LNG Supply Chain on Quantity and Quality of Natural Gas," a significant portion of a typical tanker's load boils off.

"The LNG storage tank has insulation, but it cannot provide perfect insulation. Therefore heat from the environment slowly affects the tank, which causes the LNG to evaporate and produce the gas, known as boil-off Gas (BOG). BOG in the LNG supply chain occurs in the storage tank, the process of loading and unloading, and also during the shipping...The results show 2,966 m3 of BOG occurred in the LNG loading process, corresponding to 2.7% of total LNG carried. For the shipping process, 4,118 m3 (4%) of the remaining LNG turns into BOG and 2,545 m3 (2.63%) of the remaining LNG in the unloading process."

That's 9.33% of the gas, a total of 9629 cubic meters of methane gas leaking into the atmosphere from a ship carrying a load of 126,500 cubic meters. Meanwhile, according to another study, "The boiloff rate of an LNG cargo for a fully loaded carrier is normally 0.1 to 0.25% of total volume per day." So if those ships sitting around Europe are about the same size, that's 316 cubic meters per day per ship.

Other studies put the BOG at lower levels, at 5% of the cargo, but that is still a huge number given the amount of LNG being shipped around the world. And while the industry and studies claim that "natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, which is most popular and economical after crude oil" and "liquefied natural gas is the most economical way of transporting NG over long distances," they never describe the BOG as methane leaking into the atmosphere, which it mostly is.

As Treehugger has noted in the past, "Due to the chemical bonds within its molecule methane is much more efficient at absorbing heat than carbon dioxide (as much as 86 times more), making it a very potent greenhouse gas." Switching from piped gas to LNG is increasing methane emissions by between 5% and 10%. Yet, according to the BBC, there are plans afoot to build 20 new LNG terminals in Europe, leading to another phenomenon: lock-in.

"It's really scary to be honest," Eilidh Robb, who is with Friends of the Earth Europe, told the BBC. "The challenge is that to make these terminals economically viable, countries have to agree to very long contracts to bring in the gas and the terminals themselves can last up to 40 years, which means a very long lock-in effect for these fossil fuels that we are trying to get out of."

Peter Erickson, Michael Lazarus and Kevin Tempest

Peter Erickson, Michael Lazarus and Kevin Tempest /CC BY-NC 3.0

We have looked at lock-in before, quoting a study, Assessing Carbon Lock-in:

"Carbon lock-in is an example of the phenomenon of path dependence—'the tendency for past decisions and events to self-reinforce, thereby diminishing and possibly excluding the prospects for alternatives to emerge...Specifically, carbon lock-in refers to the dynamic whereby prior decisions relating to GHG-emitting technologies, infrastructure, practices, and their supporting networks constrain future paths, making it more challenging, even impossible, to subsequently pursue more optimal paths toward low-carbon objectives."

Our conclusion then was similar to the one given by Paul Balcombe of the Queen Mary University of London to the BBC: "We need to increase energy efficiency and our renewables deployment. Rather than just looking at the really, really short-term replacement, which is LNG, we need to look at the slightly longer term, which will have way better cost implications, financial and environmental."

Instead of investing in more LNG infrastructure, both on the receiving side in Europe and the production side in Canada and the U.S., we need to reduce the demand for gas. That means insulating our homes and buildings—not our LNG tanks.

View Article Sources
  1. "Europe to the Fore, Elsewhere Through the Floor: How LNG Flows Were Turned on Their Head in 2022." S&P Global Commodity Insights, 2022.

  2. "Dozens Of LNG-Laden Vessels Queue Off The Coasts Of Europe, Not Able To Unload." Marine Insight, 2022.

  3. Rahmania, Ainun, and Widodo W. Purwanto. “Simulation of Boil-off Gas Effect along LNG Supply Chain on Quantity and Quality of Natural Gas.” International Energy Conference Astechnova 2019, 2020, doi:10.1063/5.0000853

  4. Kobayashi, Y. "On the Boil off Rate of Liquefied Cargo of Gas Carrier During A Partially Loaded Voyage." Journal of the Society of Naval Architects of Japan, vol.160.

  5. Hasan, M. M., et al. “Minimizing Boil-off Losses in Liquefied Natural Gas Transportation.” Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, vol. 48, no. 21, 2009, pp. 9571–9580., doi:10.1021/ie801975q