May 13, 2022

“Colonialism hasn’t stopped, it just changed shape”: The toxic truth about natural gas

Written by Jessica Kleczka

“Gas destroys our communities and the climate in a different, not better, way to oil and coal.” - Gastivists

In the race to phase out coal and oil, gas has been branded as a greener and cleaner midterm solution as we shift towards renewable energy systems. This narrative was strengthened after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which saw countries such as Greece and the UK push for more gas to reduce their reliance on Russian gas. The industry, however, has a dirty secret: there is not much that is “natural” about natural gas, other than it originating from the earth - as do all fossil fuels, but we have yet to see framings such as “natural coal” or “green oil”.

What is it then that sets gas apart from other fossil fuels? The answer is simple: An insidious and highly effective greenwashing campaign.

Natural gas is driving climate breakdown

Natural gas contains methane as a primary component - a powerful greenhouse gas with a global warming potential roughly 90 times higher than that of carbon dioxide on a twenty-year timescale. While methane concentrations do decrease over time, in the short term it contributes to climate change dramatically. The fossil fuel industry is the biggest emitter of methane after cows. Methane concentrations have increased by at least 150% since the Industrial Revolution, this means  that any additional methane released into the atmosphere will compromise our goal of keeping average temperature increase below 1.5°C - no matter how effective our decarbonisation efforts. 

While fossil gas emits less CO2 than coal and oil (approximately half), methane leaks from pipelines are a rule rather than an exception. This is highly problematic, as those leaks erase the climate benefits gained from using gas rather than other fossil fuels, and raise emissions in a way that is often difficult to measure. So why on earth are we investing in an energy resource which is spewing millions of tonnes of methane into the atmosphere?

The UK Energy Strategy: A missed opportunity

While many European countries are now accelerating their transition towards renewable energy, the UK is at risk of taking a huge step backwards following its Energy Security Strategy, which actively supports new fossil fuel developments, rather than phasing them out as it should. Notably, the strategy failed to cut demand for gas through energy efficiency and other measures which would also ease the burden of rising gas prices on consumers in the short term. Onshore wind, the cheapest form of renewables, was sidelined, while the oil and gas industry will benefit from a new licensing round later this year. This makes almost no sense, both in terms of energy security and the affordability crisis : most of what’s left in the North sea is oil, rather than gas, and not the type of oil that can be used in UK refineries - which means that we export 80% of it. And new domestic production will do nothing to lower bills, a fact the government admits. New oil and gas exploration will lock us into expensive, polluting  fuels far longer than is necessary, potentially well past our net zero deadline of 2050. The strategy has been criticised as “environmentally and economically illiterate”. On top of this, the government has so far refused to impose  a windfall tax on oil and gas profits, which could help families struggling with energy costs.

Towards energy security, away from gas

The world is slowly waking up to the reality of gas being wholly inadequate as a transition fuel, and the climate movement is mobilising to stop the industry from pushing through new projects in the name of energy security. One of the groups fighting against new gas exploration is Gastivists, a small collective supporting grassroots groups fighting against new gas infrastructure and its root causes of neocolonialism and racial capitalism. In doing so, Gastivists recognise the intersections of energy, land rights and geopolitical conflicts and strive towards justice for all oppressed groups. We interviewed Ya’ara Peretz, a Gastivists campaigner on the issue of energy security:

“We should ask ourselves, who is defining security? Is it really possible to create energy security with a resource that we know is killing us slowly? Using the term “bridge fuel” for fossil gas is a lie: In Israel, where I am based, there is enough existing fossil gas capacity, and any new infrastructure is for financial and economic profit only. Those projects are not short-term, either: an LNG platform will drill until the last drop, which can take between 20 to 40 years. We don’t have that amount of time in a climate emergency.”

Gastivists’ guerilla projections on the Glasgow Events Campus during COP26.
"Using the term ‘bridge fuel’ raises doubt among the public and obscures the truth that gas is a fossil fuel. Gas companies and governments have been very successful in their propaganda to make gas look like a clean fuel, and until fairly recently, this was how gas was viewed in the Israeli environmental movement and wider society. All this misinformation and greenwashing is slowing us down, consuming time we don’t have. If we don’t know the truth, we can't use our power as citizens and demand change - that’s why we at Gastivists are campaigning to toxify fossil gas.”
“We put our values into policies and how we organise”, she adds. “We are striving to be an alternative to power dynamics we see in the world - by being feminist, non-hierarchical and anti-capitalist. My work focuses on the EastMed-Poseidon pipeline, promoting climate justice in the east mediterranean against extractivism and militarisation.”
A map of the EastMed-Poseidon project. Source: BankTrack

The controversial EastMed-Poseidon pipeline project, at a combined distance of 2100 kilometres, would be one of Europe’s longest pipelines and reportedly the world’s deepest - running up to three kilometres under the surface of the sea. This, of course, comes with considerable logistical challenges and environmental risks: Eastmed crosses a biodiversity hotspot and spills are difficult to detect and fix in those depths, posing a risk to local flora and fauna. 

“EastMed and Poseidon are two separate pipelines - it’s a project promoted by the EU”, Ya’ara tells us. While EU demand for gas is decreasing, the union has granted the project priority status, pumping more than €36 million of public money into what could very possibly become a stranded asset - not a great prospect at an estimated cost of €6 billion.

“EastMed would exploit gas from offshore Israel through to Cyprus and Greece, then connect to the Poseidon pipeline which will be in the south of Italy”, Ya’ara explains, “it’s basically a way of getting Europe to use Israeli and Cypriot gas, for the purpose of diversifying energy resources. The EU and countries along the route have been using the situation in Ukraine to push for the pipeline in order to reduce dependence on Russian gas.” But in reality, gas imported into Europe from the EastMed pipeline would be equivalent to only 5% of gas imports from Russia.
No Tap, an Italian partner organisation of Gastivists.

New pipelines are fuelling conflict

Not only does EastMed pose a significant threat to biodiversity, our climate goals and the economy - it aggravates existing geopolitical conflicts, too. In our interview, Ya’ara tells us: “Cyprus, Greece and Turkey have a quiet war that no one is talking about, and this pipeline is fuelling that conflict because the pipeline goes right through disputed waters.”

In 2020, Turkish and Greek warships clashed above disputed gas reserves offshore of Cyprus. The US is interfering in the geopolitical dynamics of the region, and companies such as ExxonMobil have lobbied for a spending package supporting gas exploration and militarisation in the region. Meanwhile, Israel won’t allow Palestinians to exploit and develop its own natural resources as its economic waters are controlled by Israeli military. Israel's exploitation of gas, amongst other natural resources, is a “pillage of Palestinian resources”, according to Palestinian groups fighting against the EastMed pipeline.

“The absurdity is that this is an energy resource that’s killing our planet and our future”, Ya’ara stresses. “The EastMed project is strengthening Israel’s position with the West and Europe, and creating European dependency on Israeli gas. It is whitewashing everything Isreal is doing to the Palestinian people and legitimising human rights violations perpetrated by Israel in the West Bank and across Palestinian territory. Giving Israel more economic power is fuelling existing conflict and tensions. We see neocolonial western powers doing this all over the world. Colonialism hasn’t stopped, it just changed shape.”
“Gas is continuing on the same logic of extraction: it always causes destruction and oppression, and only benefits corporations”, she adds. “It has been the same throughout the history of colonialism, this idea of endless economic growth which always happens off the back of someone. We have to shift away from that - fossil fuels already contribute to people losing their lives and livelihoods. The communities who are displaced are not the ones profiting from gas. In that way, it’s not any different from oil and coal. The way it’s extracted is different, but the principle is the same.”

The fight against gas goes global

The fight against gas doesn’t end in the East Mediterranean: The UK has its very own project which promises to be destructive and potentially a stranded asset as the world shifts away from fossil fuels. The government is currently considering approving the Jackdaw gas field off the coast of Aberdeen, which would only satisfy 1- 2% of UK gas demand on average over its short lifetimes but would create the equivalent of more than half of Scotland’s annual emissions or Ghana’s entire annual emissions.

Activist pressure is mounting, however, and the Stop Jackdaw campaign is gaining momentum. Just like we stopped Cambo, there is all the reason to believe that we can stop Jackdaw, EastMed, and all other new fossil fuel projects, too. In building our international networks, we can create a better future rooted in values of justice and solidarity. There is no place for new oil and gas in a climate emergency - not here, not anywhere.

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Cover photo: Gastivists at the #GasFrackdown day of action during COP24 in Poland.