US liquefied natural gas from fracking is much more harmful than coal

Production facility for fracked gas in Texas. © ARD-NDR / HTTV Produktion

LNG produces more greenhouse gases than any other fossil fuel, and it also causes massive damage to health and the environment.

The German ARD television documentary “LNG at any price” dismantles the fairy tale of the supposedly clean liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the USA. On a research trip through the country of production, author Michael Höft brings frightening facts to light: the extraction of liquefied natural gas leads to radioactive waste, poisoned rivers and massive climate pollution. A special camera reveals the enormous leakage of methane at the extraction plants. Scientists protest: It would be much less harmful to climate and health to rely on coal instead of importing fracked gas from the U.S., which is one of the largest LNG exporters in the world. Nevertheless, the EU wants to buy an additional 50 billion cubic meters of LNG per year from the U.S. by 2030. This corresponds to one-third of the amount of natural gas that Europe still purchased from Russia in 2020.

Liquefaction and transport of LNG waste energy

Michael Höft begins his research in Texas. The LNG terminals that cool the gas down to minus 162 degrees for shipment to Europe are located on the Gulf of Mexico. Experts estimate that this process requires so much energy that a quarter of the total energy of the gas is already lost here. Further gas would then have to be used on the ship to cool the remaining LNG. In addition, there would be gas losses due to leaks throughout the supply chain. “Only 50 to 70 percent of the gas still arrives in Germany,” criticizes internationally renowned professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University. That alone is anything but climate-friendly or sustainable.

Methane emissions rise steeply out of control

Since Europe has been buying LNG in enormous quantities, a “new gold rush” has emerged in America, the ARD documentary says, with fracking like never before. Even in densely populated areas such as West Virginia or Ohio. Because of the fracking boom throughout North America, methane emissions are now greater than ever, says Robert Howarth. Northwest Texas is the epicenter of the oil and gas industry. Gas is fracked out of the ground at tens of thousands of drilling sites. During this process, enormous amounts of methane escape. This gas is at least 25 times more harmful to the climate than CO2 and is invisible to the human eye.

Earthworks Aktivist FrackinganlageAn activist with the environmental organization Earthworks in front of a Texas fracking facility. © ARD-NDR / HTTV Produktion

Experts from the environmental organization “Earth Works” use a special camera to make these emissions visible to the television crew: the result is alarming. Everywhere methane is rising into the air, which according to scientists is one of the biggest causes of global warming. Newly developed satellite cameras from the University of Bremen also show large-scale methane inputs in the atmosphere over Texas and other production areas in the USA. What is scandalous is that the drilling companies are allowed to let this methane escape into the environment quite legally, says one environmentalist. This is permitted by the lax U.S. laws on environmental protection.

Methanemssionen Fracking GasThe climate-damaging methane emissions can be made visible with a special camera. © ARD-NDR / HTTV Produktion

Fracking is the worst of all extraction techniques 

However, methane is only one sinister side of LNG, the ARD documentary comments; the damage caused by LNG during the extraction process is much worse. In the northwest of the USA, the TV reporter investigates radioactive toxic waste. Fracking uses water, chemicals and sand to flush the gas out of the ground. However, this water is highly toxic when it reaches the earth’s surface again. That’s because the gas deposits in the ground are associated with shale rock, which often contains radioactive radium. Fracking would leach these minerals, washing them to the surface and making workers and residents sick. Radiation levels from radium would be up to six times above permitted levels. Along the Texas coast, he said, cases of cancer, infertility, respiratory and nervous disorders have risen sharply. The same applies to fracking areas in the densely populated east of the USA, where more and more deaths are being registered due to a – actually rare – bone cancer. But the protests of the population would go unheard by the authorities. “It seems that the environmental protection agencies are more interested in protecting the rights of industry than those of citizens,” says a local resident who lost his son to this cancer. “When you talk to politicians, all they ever talk about is jobs and money. It’s the only thing that matters.”

The energy companies’ lobby is unassailable

The gas and oil industry in the U.S. is endowed with enormous rights, the documentary notes. Even on the land of the indigenous Navajos, fracking is allowed without restrictions. Members of this tribe tell in the film how their water is poisoned and their sacred places are destroyed. These facts are known and not disputed. After all, mining companies have to report environmentally damaging accidents to the authorities. However, they do not have to pay damages. Even the official measurements of the environmental protection authorities prove that the air quality in the vicinity of the extraction sites is highly hazardous to health, according to the film. A mix of toxic substances pollutes the atmosphere in the region. But the polluters would all remain unchallenged.

LNG is not the solution, but the biggest problem

Many experts consider the trade in liquid gas irresponsible. No energy supplier is more harmful to the climate than LNG, the ARD documentary states. In an interview, Robert Howarth of Cornell University recommends that Germany exploit its own gas reserves conventionally. And, if necessary, to rely on coal until enough renewable energy can be generated. That would be much more climate-friendly than importing fracked LNG from overseas, Howarth notes.

More domestic production fails due to fears of the population

Just 20 years ago, 20 percent of the gas consumed in Germany as a whole came from domestic production. Today, the self-sufficiency rate is just five percent. The second largest natural gas deposit in continental Europe is located in the German Altmark region.

Gasfeld in der AltmarkGas field in the Altmark region. © ARD-NDR / HTTV Produktion

But new wells have not been drilled for a long time, says a former worker. The film commentary adds that new gas fields are hardly ever sought. For a long time, importing cheap gas from Russia was simply more lucrative. When this ceased to exist, liquefied natural gas from the United States became available relatively quickly to satisfy the German industry’s great hunger for energy. Attempts to reactivate the country’s own gas production regularly fail due to resistance from the population.


This article was first published by Infosperber.