Green and renewable gas: the risk of financing fossil fuels through the back door

This blogpost builds on a chapter of our recent report “The ‘EU Climate Bank’ – Greenwashing or a banking revolution?” which uncovers some of the key areas where there are genuine risks that the European Investment Bank (EIB) will support “greenwashing practices”. Among these are the false promises of “green” or “renewable” gas, a trap that both the EIB and the European Commission appears to have fallen into.

Earlier this month, the European Commission published its plans to make hydrogen a crucial part of its climate strategy. Several NGOs have however pointed out that this new strategy appears to be heavily influenced by gas lobbies and falls short of providing a fossil gas phase-out date. This new hype for hydrogen and other so-called renewable gas risks creating a dangerous distraction that will only increase our reliance on all kinds of gas, including fossil gas.

What can be considered truly renewable gas is hydrogen from excess renewable electricity or locally produced and small-scale biogas made from sustainable biomass. The potential for truly sustainable renewable gas production in the EU is only a fraction of what industry claims is possible and will never be enough to substitute current fossil gas use. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, renewable gas would meet only 7% of today’s gas demand by 2050, and only 6% of transport fuel demand if all production was used exclusively for transport. 

WHAT ARE “GREEN” AND “RENEWABLE GASES”?

The convenient confusion around various forms of gas enables the industry to use “renewable” gas as a sustainable sounding umbrella term to refer to a variety of production processes and end products – including some still derived from fossil gas. They include the following:

● Biogas/biomethane: Both refer to gas produced through anaerobic digestion of organic matter such as manure, sewer sludge, landfill waste, or biomass grown for the purpose. This process involves removing some of the CO2 so that its composition is similar to fossil gas, enabling its transport via existing gas infrastructure. Biomethane is produced by removing extra CO2 from biogas. It is however still methane: it emits CO2 when burned and can leak from pipelines and other infrastructure like fossil gas.

●  Hydrogen: Hydrogen is emission-free when burned but its carbon footprint depends on how it is produced. A staggering 96% of the hydrogen produced today actually comes from fossil fuels (referred to as “blue hydrogen”). While hydrogen can be produced from renewable electricity (referred to as “green hydrogen”), this “power-to-gas” technology is expensive and exists so far only in pilot project form. Because hydrogen is a smaller molecule than methane, existing gas pipelines, storage facilities, and appliances would need to be renewed to use it. Hydrogen can technically be converted to synthetic methane to adapt to existing infrastructure, but that process requires adding CO2, increasing costs and pollution while decreasing its efficiency.

● Low-carbon gas: Refers to fossil gas hypothetically combined with CCS.While using CCS to strip CO2 from fossil gas cannot be considered “renewable,” some industry proponents still lump it into this category. CCS itself remains an uncertain, risky, and still-costly technology, which is currently completely out-priced by renewable electricity in the power sector. It is therefore hard to see how it could become competitive in the next decades.

Scaling up production of renewable gas also raises several environmental challenges. For hydrogen to be “green”, it needs to be produced from excess renewable electricity i.e. only when too much of it is produced. Given how expensive the “power-to-gas” (P2G) technology is, this is unlikely to become profitable. Therefore, the P2G plant will either need its own dedicated renewable electricity source (which means hydrogen would still be renewable but would compete with wider decarbonisation efforts for electricity), or it would have to be connected to the grid. Until all grid electricity is from renewable sources, hydrogen will actually be made from fossil fuel energy.

Importing biogas and biomethane from abroad could also replicate the serious harmful consequences that have been documented in the production of biofuels, with land-grabbing, deforestation and competition with food crops. This would clearly undermine its sustainability credentials.

While small quantities of renewable gas may be suitable for local heat and electricity generation or for a few industrial activities that are difficult to decarbonize, they will in any case keep representing only a fraction of the current fossil gas consumption.

Gas companies are well aware of this. As research by Corporate Europe Observatory signals, the core vision of the industry is to continue pumping fossil gas for as long as they can, with small renewable gas capacity giving them a cover of sustainability. Narratives of “renewable” gas are furthermore being used as an umbrella for “decarbonised” or “low-carbon” gases, these are in fact just fossil gases with the future hope of still unproven and highly expensive CCS.

The EIB is also falling into the trap. In December 2019 the bank signed an agreement with the Hydrogen Council, a global initiative of CEOs representing energy, transport, and industry organisations advocating for the accelerated deployment of hydrogen solutions. Under this agreement, the EIB will play an advisory role to help companies structure hydrogen projects. The type of hydrogen that will be supported is however not specified. Therefore, there is a risk that the scheme will be used to finance “blue” hydrogen produced from fossil gas.

The strategies employed by gas companies to greenwash their business might enable them to continue receiving public funds, despite these companies being unlikely to stop extracting fossil gas anytime soon. Focusing on the niche area of green hydrogen and other renewable gas for the future of the European energy system is not a credible solution in the long-term and creates a dangerous diversion to most urgent needs around financing energy efficiency, the renovation of buildings and the development of renewable energy across Europe and beyond.

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