EU votes for more gas infrastructure, angering climate activists

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EU votes for more gas infrastructure. (John Cobb/ Greenpeace/DW)

The EU parliament today voted to greenlight up to 55 new fossil gas infrastructure projects. Critics say the vote betrays Europe's Green Deal and its promise of carbon neutrality by 2050.

Despite intense lobbying from climate activists, members of the European Parliament today voted to approve the Projects of Commons Interest (known as the PCI list) that will channel billions in EU funding into new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Energy projects on the 4th PCI list are eligible to receive up to 50% of funding from the EU through the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF). Among the 151 projects included on the list, 55 new fossil gas projects have sparked the greatest backlash.

"This decision could unleash €24 billion in finance for climate-wrecking pipelines and €1.7 billion for new LNG (liquified natural gas) terminals, which eclipses the €7.5 billion of new resources due to be raised to tackle the climate crisis through the EU's plans for a 'Green Deal,'" said Clemence Dubois, campaigner at climate group 350.org.

Infrastructure for fracked gas

Anti-fracking activist and actor Mark Ruffalo was also in Brussels to protest against the list on the eve of the vote. He noted that new gas terminals are being built to import US gas derived through hydraulic fracturing — such fracking has been largely banned in European countries like Germany where the terminals are planned.

"It is going to be fracked gas taken from my community, it's going to poison our people and it is the antithesis of moving forward with the European Green Deal," Ruffalo said.

Further compromising the Green Deal is the fact that public financial institutions like the European Investment Bank that in 2019 committed to ending funding for fossil fuel projects by the end of 2021 — in line with the EU's commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050 — will now fund gas projects that could be online until 2070.

In response, the European Commission has focused on the electricity and smart grid infrastructure that makes up 70% of the PCI List.

"Europe's energy transition is well underway, with record levels of clean and renewable energy and rapidly falling costs," said Miguel Arias Canete, Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, when the PCI List was first introduced in October.

"That is why we are focusing the new list of projects on key electricity interconnections and smart grids," he said.

Kadri Simson, the European Commissioner for Energy, addressed the subject of the PCI lists at a plenary meeting on Tuesday. Looking ahead to the next PCI list, she said the Commission was committed to "innovative projects enabling the transmission of renewable and decarbonised gases and projects enabling the smart integration of electricity and gas networks."

By decarbonised gases, the Commission has expressed hope that existing gas infrastructure can accommodate low-emission hydrogen and biogas.

Will promised transition be too late?

Kjell Kühne, an activist with Gastivists Berlin, believes that the last European Commission (before a reshuffle in December when Ursula von der Leyen became President) has been promoting new gas terminals due to a perceived need to secure gas supply independent of Russia; and a belief that gas is a 'bridge' in the transition to renewable energy since it has lower emissions than coal or oil.

"The argument about fossil gas being more climate friendly than other fossils is also false," she told DW, noting that fossil gas emits methane, one of the strongest greenhouse gases.

"Releasing more methane is the worst thing to do in a climate emergency."

"To reach the Paris Agreement's temperature targets, no new fossil fuel infrastructure can be built," Kühne added. It has been argued that the Paris targets, which are mirrored in the EU Green Deal that was adopted in December that aim to achieve a 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming via carbon neutrality by 2050, require the immediate phase out of fossil fuel projects.

Andy Gheorghiu, a policy advisor and campaigner for Food & Water Europe, said the gas projects would in fact need to be phased out quickly if the Paris targets were to be reached. "As soon as the projects are online, they would in actual fact need to be phased out immediately," he told DW.

No phase-out plan

The PCI list projects have no phase-out plan, Gheorghiu added, meaning the projects will either lead to a "fossil lock-in" whereby fossil energy funding commitments inhibit the growth of renewables; or become "stranded assets" in a decreasing market for gas and concurrent higher demand for clean energy sources like wind and solar.

By voting for the gas projects, Gheorghiu believes the EU is potentially creating huge infrastructure boondoggles that will drain EU funds that will be vital for the renewable energy transition underlining the Green Deal.

But he also notes that the particular commitment to US fracked gas imports is also due to the so-called "Trump-Juncker agreement" in July 2018 whereby President Trump threatened tariffs on automobile exports if the EU did not commit to more LNG imports.

Ombudsman complaint urges review

Meanwhile, Gheorghiu says that the fossil gas projects have not been subject to a climate assessment and therefore do not comply with existing obligations under the Paris Agreement. "We need to go back to the table and we really need to do a proper assessment of all these gas projects," he said.

Gheorghiu lodged an official complaint with the EU Ombudsman arguing that the PCI list was established without carrying out a sustainability or climate assessment.

The Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, has now opened an official inquiry into the complaint, stating in a letter to the President of the European Commission on February 10 that it will "examine if and how the Commission has sought to ensure that sustainability was assessed for gas projects, as well as for oil projects, obtaining PCI status."

The letter, however, was kept under embargo by the Ombudsman until the day after the vote. Gheorghiu, who lodged the complaint back in October, said the decision to open the inquiry should have been made public earlier.

"Knowing about the Ombudsman's decision to open up an inquiry into whether or not the PCI list is non-compliant with EU Law and the climate targets would have influenced the decision of many MEPs to reject this list and return it to sender for review," he said in a statement.

In response, a spokesperson for the EU Ombudsman told DW that "we usually give the complainant a few days to review the letter" before it is published.

But there remains some hope of a subsequent assessment. Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal and Vice President at the European Commission, said on the eve of the vote that all gas projects on the PCI list will be reviewed in line with the EU Green Deal.

Despite the vote, activists like Kjell Kühne still believe that many of the gas projects will not see the light of day. "The PCI list is just a wish list of the industry and most projects will never get built if enough people mobilize against them," she said.