European governments are scouring the world for natural gas as they seek to reduce their overwhelming and increasingly uncomfortable dependence on Russia’s Gazprom.
Besides the United States, which has done its best to supply as much LNG as possible to its European allies, several African countries have emerged as potential sources of additional gas supplies. But they are not exactly happy about it.
“The gas here goes to Bonny and Europe to power homes and industries but we have no benefits from it,” one local community development activist from the Niger Delta told Bloomberg recently. “Nothing comes to us.”
The comment was part of an in-depth analysis by Bloomberg on Europe’s mad dash for gas that has seen Nigeria, for example, send millions of tons of LNG abroad while local communities use illegally made fuels and wood to stay warm. Nigeria is far from the only one.
Mozambique is one of the biggest LNG hopefuls in the world, and the current energy security anxieties of European leaders have made it even more important. But Mozambique is a troubled country. It is suffering extremist attacks on civilians that have, in addition to the tragedy of human deaths, delayed the development of the country’s gas reserves.
Yet there is a much bigger problem with Europe and its thirst for African hydrocarbons. Hypocrisy.
For years, new oil and gas field development and pipeline construction projects across Africa have suffered setbacks because of Western banks and governments’ unwillingness to fund new hydrocarbon projects as the crusade on carbon emissions gathered pace.
Now, suddenly, the tables have turned with a deafening crash. The G7 is suddenly all for new oil and gas investments abroad after committing to suspend these just last November at the COP26. And Europe, that same Europe that has been advising African countries to focus on renewable energy and keep the oil and gas in the ground, is now asking for gas.
The International Energy Agency has joined the discourse, too, adding urgency to the continent’s hydrocarbon development outlook. In a report released last month, the IEA said African gas producers had limited time to commercialize their resources, saying these producers needed to act quickly because the world would only need gas for a while before going low-carbon.
Apparently, the large-scale development of African gas resources was not at odds with Paris Agreement targets, according to the IEA’s secretary-general, Fatih Birol. He told Reuters back in June that “If we make a list of the top 500 things we need to do to be in line with our climate targets, what Africa does with its gas does not make that list.”
He also said that if African countries with gas reserves turned all of these reserves into production, this production could reach 90 billion cubic meters per year by 2030, of which two-thirds could be used domestically and the rest exported.
That would be 30 billion cubic meters for exports, equivalent to what the United States and Qatar, taken together, can supply annually to Europe. For context, Russian gas exports to Europe totaled 158 billion cubic meters last year.
Of course, to do that, energy companies and other funding providers would need to strengthen their walk-back on emission reduction commitments. They will probably do just that, on the basis that ‘it’s only for a short while”, as Germany’s government said when it decided to restart coal plants.
But there are environmental concerns about the long-term viability of gas production in Africa itself.
“It’s difficult to predict how long this opportunity will be there, especially in the context of the energy transition, the world moving away from the fossil fuels,” Silas Olan’g, Africa co-director of the Natural Resources Governance Institute, a New York-based environmental NGO, told NPR recently. “I think they are kind of misleading most of the governments,” he said.
The situation is pretty complicated. On the one hand, some, notably the leaders of African countries with oil and gas reserves, feel that these countries deserve the chance to exploit these reserves the way Western countries did, which was instrumental in their evolution into developed economies.
While a year ago, the West would have frowned at this argument, now it is in the West’s interest to support it wholeheartedly, so it gets a piece of the gas—and oil, why not—pie.
But on the other hand, there are environmentalists in Africa, too, and they are concerned that the continent’s gas-rich countries may be going into a trap of stranded gas assets. It is difficult to argue with this concern when so many think tanks active in the same area as the NRGI are warning about such stranded assets.
Of course, the current U-turn being made by Europe and the U.S. appears to counter the argument of stranded assets and suggests that gas-rich African countries such as Nigeria, Senegal, Angola, and Equatorial Guinea have sufficient time to monetize their resources. If the U-turners are willing to provide the money for it.