Gas Leaks

    What is it with American politicians and their uncanny predictive powers, I wonder. Remember ex-POTUS Trump’s famous “Last night in Sweden” remark and the imaginary terrorist attack he somehow conjured into existence shortly after? As I am watching the alarming videos of methane bubbles distressing the serene blue waters of the nearby Baltic Sea, I can’t help but recall an off-hand remark of former Vice President Gore, uttered just last week at New York Times Climate Forward conference. “Gas is not a cleaner fuel; it is not a bridge to a greener future. Gas is the classic bridge to nowhere.”

    And before you discard Gore’s statement as a mere political slogan, let me give you the background. While on the topic of natural gas’s alleged cleanliness, the ex-VP reminded us that there are two mathematical facts to keep in mind. Yes, when you burn nat gas (which is just “a marketing label of methane from a hundred years ago,” by the way), you release only half of the CO2 per unit of energy compared to coal and 2/3 of that compared to oil. However, methane molecules have an uncanny ability to trap heat, much superior to CO2. The treacherous gas has 84 times the warming power of carbon dioxide during its first twenty years in the atmosphere, he explained.

    “So, if you have a two or three per cent leak, methane is much worse than coal. And more than two or three per cent leaks,” concluded Gore. Now, why did he have to mention gas leaks and spook me out?

    Of course, in the case of the 700-meter-wide pool of bubbling water caused by the rupture of the Nord Stream gas pipelines, it is hardly a matter of tiny percentages. We are talking about an estimated 300.000 metric tons[1] of methane entering the atmosphere! This would be the equivalent of about 32% of Denmark’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions, according to Kristoffer Bottzauw, head of the Danish Energy Agency. “There are no containment mechanisms on the pipelines, so the entire contents of the pipes are likely to escape,” writes Germany’s Federal Environment Agency, further spoiling the mood.

    It is fair to assume that the burst pipes of Nord Stream are nothing less than an environmental disaster. Luckily, they seem to pose a limited threat[2] to the surrounding plant and animal life, most experts agree. Nature could even help to tackle the immediate problem, it would appear, as ocean bacteria can break down methane using oxygen to produce carbon dioxide, which dissolves in the water. Let’s talk about the resulting acidification of the Baltic Sea another day.

    Rather than speculating on the whodunnit aspect of the disaster, I leave the geopolitics aside and opt to dig down into the concrete facts of those continuous gas leaks that Gore was talking about. Turns out, he is hardly a prophet who anticipated Nord Stream, just an informed nature advocate acknowledging well-known inconvenient truths. In 2020 alone, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that natural gas pipelines leaked over 1.4 million tons of methane, with no sabotage involved as far as I know. We’d better follow his advice and watch out for the latest findings of Climate TRACE, a global coalition independently tracking GHG emissions in detail. I guess they should be released just in time to scare us properly ahead of Halloween.

    And yet, we keep building these bridges to nowhere. In Europe, we even call them green nowadays.

    [1] With plenty of key uncertainties still remaining, this number is still based on quick back-of-the envelope calculations by scientists

    [2] Although Greenpeace is worried that some fish may get caught in plumes of gas, which could interfere with their breathing.

    Image courtesy of Martin Str from Pixabay
    Julia Axelsson, CAIA
    Julia Axelsson, CAIA
    Julia has accumulated experience in asset management for more than 20 years in Stockholm and Beijing, in portfolio management, asset allocation, fund selection and risk management. In December 2020, she completed a program in Sustainability Studies at the University of Linköping. Julia speaks Mandarin, Bulgarian, Hindi, Russian, Swedish, Urdu and English. She holds a Master in Indology from Sofia University and has completed studies in Economics at both Stockholm University and Stockholm School of Economics.

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