In the Netherlands, a balance between energy security and climate problems

Two huge ships, tethered to a pier in Eemshaven in the Netherlands, are at the center of this country’s response to Russia’s throttling energy supply to Europe.

On a stormy autumn day, the Gaslog Georgetown, nearly 300 meters in length, pumped liquefied natural gas brought in from the US Gulf Coast into a ship designed to collect the refrigerated fuel and send it to pipelines ashore.

These shipments of LNG, which arrived in mid-September, carry massive natural gas transfusions not only to the Netherlands, but also further to other energy-consuming European countries, including Germany and the Czech Republic.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, energy authorities in the Netherlands understood that Europe faced a major threat, but also that their country, with its central location and extensive pipeline connections, could help prevent the continent from shivering with cold this winter.

“We realized that the Netherlands is again very important for Europe,” said Ulco Vermeulen, board member and executive at Gasunie, the state-controlled energy infrastructure company. “We can load supplies and deliver them to destinations in Europe.”

But in a country where environmental protection is a high priority, the growing dependence on LNG has caused concern. Home to one of the world’s largest natural gas fields, the Netherlands is now littered with clean energy initiatives, a testament to the European Union’s goal to have zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. A court in The Hague last year ordered Shell, one of the country’s largest companies before moving to London, to accelerate its reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by restricting the production and sale of oil and gas.

Dutch environmental groups are skeptical about using new sources of natural gas, even for a few years in an emergency. They say the investment in infrastructure around the terminals, worth billions of euros, could lead to a steady flow of LNG imports long after the energy crisis is over.

“There may be a certain lock-in effect,” says Kirsten Sleven, champion of Milieudefensie, the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth, which brought the case against Shell.

Countries around the world are grappling with similar problems. There is a danger that governments will “learn the wrong lesson” from the crisis, “by putting energy security first and not thinking about climate change tomorrow,” said Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

Dutch energy managers thought they were dealing with an emergency when Russian President Vladimir V. Putin began threatening to cut off gas supplies to Europe over his opposition to the invasion of Ukraine.

Mr. Vermeulen, dock officials and other executives, which could normally have been years of negotiations, approvals and constructions, compressed into months, have cobbled together the pipelines, piers and other infrastructure needed to import liquefied natural gas as protection against a lockdown from Russia.

The facility has two floating LNG terminals – leased vessels packed with equipment to convert the refrigerated liquid supplied by ocean tankers back into vapor and send it to the European grid.

Russia has now sharply reduced gas flows in the pipeline to Europe, but Mr Vermeulen says the Netherlands will probably have enough resources to get through the winter, when natural gas consumption usually rises. However, he fears that bottlenecks in the pipeline could make supplying parts of Europe more difficult.

The Netherlands has also taken other emergency measures, including having coal-fired power stations upgraded.

European energy officials such as Mr Vermeulen maintain that falling back on climate targets is not their goal. For example, Mr Vermeulen said that when negotiating the floating installations he had demanded that leases be limited to five years, while some parties wanted 10 years. in Europe, the capacity will be ready and hydrogen will be available in commercial quantities.

Others argue that the war-induced energy crisis in Ukraine could accelerate the transition to cleaner fuels as natural gas prices have soared. Although European benchmark futures prices have fallen in recent days, they are still about eight times higher than they were two years ago before the crisis started.

Suddenly, clean energy technologies that seemed too expensive seem more competitive.

“I think the costs of natural gas will be much higher than in the past,” says Peter Molengraaf, advisor to the Dutch government in the field of energy innovation. “I think the relatively high price will make it absolutely economical to switch to renewable energy sources.”

A major concern, however, is whether residents affected by the recent sudden surges in their bills for energy, food and other supplies, electric cars or energy-saving heat pumps will be able to pay for their homes. For low-income people “there’s nothing there in terms of a positive transition,” said Jacques Wallage, a Dutch minister and mayor of Groningen.

In the Netherlands, the current energy crisis is colored by a long and complex history. In 1959, one of the world’s largest natural gas fields was discovered under some 350 square miles of farmland and picturesque villages in the province of Groningen, including Eemshaven. The discovery led to the construction of extensive pipeline networks and provided the Netherlands and the surrounding countries with cheap energy, cleaner than coal, for decades.

In the past decade, those benefits have been eclipsed by earthquakes caused by gas extraction that damaged homes and made residents’ lives miserable. “It has changed your whole life, the earthquake thing,” says Jaap Pastoor, who runs a dairy farm with his wife Nienke, where barns and houses were damaged by the quakes.

After years of dismissing complaints, in 2019 the Dutch government, which generated huge revenues from the gas, ordered Shell and Exxon Mobil, which operate the Groningen field through a joint venture known as NAM, to shut down the gas production. to an absolute minimum. Reserves worth hundreds of billions of euros must remain in the ground.

Now, despite having a gas reserve that could make a significant contribution to strengthening Europe’s energy supply, the government is wary of reopening gas in Groningen for fear of a backlash, especially from residents.

“We firmly believe that they should never reopen the gas field,” said Jeanette Ubels, who is rebuilding her earthquake-damaged house in the village of Westeremden and installing electric heating so as not to depend on gas.

Some say that it makes little sense to keep the Groningen gas taps largely closed during a calamity.

“The decision is just terrible,” said Wybren van Haga, a right-wing MP. “It’s technically flawed, it’s politically motivated and it costs a lot of money.”

But few observers think that the government will allow Groningen to grow again, except in an extreme situation. The government sees the gas field “as a real, real lender of last resort”, according to Vermeulen.

And in the area around the gigantic gas field, the focus is on shifting to cleaner forms of energy.

“Due to the geopolitical situation we now have with Russia, I feel that everyone sees the urgency,” said Melissa van Hoorn, the regional minister for climate and energy transition.

Solar and wind power is growing rapidly in the Netherlands and now interest is shifting to hydrogen, a clean-burning fuel that companies are betting will be used in large volumes to store energy and power heavy vehicles and heavy industry. The Groningen network of gas pipelines could one day be used to supply fuels such as hydrogen.

Shell is building what is expected to be the largest electrolyzer in Europe in Rotterdam, a device that uses electricity to make hydrogen from water. It would produce ‘green’ hydrogen, because the power would come from a gigantic wind farm off the coast.

The company, which retains a large presence in the Netherlands despite the relocation of its headquarters last year, is gaining practical experience by supplying hydrogen to a fleet of 32 buses in the Groningen region.

“This is new, so we have to learn how to do this,” said Ruben van Grinsven, general director of hydrogen at Shell.

Cas König, director of Groningen Seaports, which manages the ports of Eemshaven and nearby Delfzijl, was one of the officials who worked hard to develop the liquefied natural gas terminal so quickly. Still, he said confronting Russia over energy could accelerate the transition to clean energy.

He is expanding plans for hydrogen imports, which will be needed in larger quantities than a small country like the Netherlands can produce domestically. The gas could be used by the cluster of power plants and chemical plants in the port and supplied to other parts of the Netherlands and neighbors such as Belgium and Germany.

“Once the infrastructure is in place,” he said, “the economy will follow.”

Claire Moses contributed reporting from London.

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