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Greening Natural Gas Delivery – LNG versus Pipelines

Pipeline Infrastructure dominates Eurasia but LNG is on the horizon. Map from Wikimedia Commons
Pipeline Infrastructure dominates Eurasia but LNG is on the horizon. Map courtesy of  Stratfor.
Boundaries and names shown do not necessarily reflect the map policy of the National Geographic Society.

The recent tension between Ukraine and Russia has highlighted the significance of energy infrastructure as a diplomatic tool. Ukraine’s dependence on Russian gas through pipelines has alerted Europe to the danger of such infrastructure dependence. However, it is still worth noting that despite all the saber-rattling, the gas is still flowing, and as some  analysts have argued there is mutual interest on transactional cooperation in this regard. Proponents of LNG gas delivery are using this political situation as a time to emphasize the resilience of mobile gas delivery systems as opposed to pipelines. However, before we take a leap too far down the LNG route, let us consider the ecological aspects of gas delivery mechanisms more closely.

While much has been written on the carbon footprint of oil versus natural gas, scant attention is often paid to the transport and delivery of either fuel. In comparison to oil, which is largely transported worldwide by a fleet of more than 38,000 marine tankers, 93% of the world’s gas continues to be supplied through pipelines. Over sixty countries have on average 2000 km of pipeline for gas transmission within their borders and about 10,000 kms of new pipelines are planned for this decade, often traversing difficult terrain and deep marine waters.[1]

The role of pipelines is diminishing as Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) operations provide the fuel to a greater number of markets.  LNG is natural gas that is cooled to -161 C, at which point it becomes a liquid and occupies only 1/600th of its original volume, making it convenient for shipping. The process to bring the gas to such low temperatures requires highly capital intensive infrastructure. Liquefaction plants, specially designed ships fitted with cryogenic cooling tanks, regasification terminals and domestic transmission infrastructure all make LNG relatively expensive in construction and operational cost.  The clear advantage of LNG shipments lies in access to distant markets which become uneconomical for pipeline transport, usually beyond 3,000km. LNG shipments also avoid lengthy negotiations on international pipeline routing and security enforcement, though the rise of piracy on the high seas in recent years has changed this dynamic considerably.

The environmental costs of pipelines for oil have often been far more publicly debated than for LNG. Pipeline projects such as the Baku-Tblisi Ceyhan (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey), Chad-Cameroon; Camisea (Peru) and the Yadana project (Burma / Myanmar) have become focal points for environmental activism. Campaigns targeting shareholders of parent companies of these projects as well as litigation have focused on the environmental disruption caused by the infrastructure that is needed to construct the pipelines. Often the environmental concerns pertaining to these projects have been inextricably linked to indigenous conflicts over resource access and mitigation of impacts to livelihoods that may be affected by the pipelines. However, if the pipeline infrastructure can be moved underground and the surrounding land restored after construction, the impacts can be greatly reduced.

Whereas oil pipelines can cause ecological damage due to minor leaks and spills, the only “spill” hazard from gas pipelines involves potential combustion of leaks that can lead to uncontrolled forest fires.  Monitoring of the pipeline route is therefore vitally important through remote sensing technology and also with physical monitoring and security in key locations. With such measures in place, pipelines can also be a source of lasting cooperation between countries that can be considered a derivative planning benefit for international donors and multinational investment.[2] However, the same argument could be made of LNG linkages between countries though with less infrastructure resilience. In 2011, the United States imported 349 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of LNG from seven different exporting countries, with the largest being Trinidad and Tobago.

Energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions are perhaps the most significant areas where pipeline gas can have an advantage over LNG. However, this advantage is also highly dependent on various design factors.  According to a recent study commissioned by the European Union, the typical energy “penalty” for gas delivery via pipelines is 10-15% (efficiency of 85-90%), whereas for LNG it is approximately 25% (efficiency of about 75%). The efficiency for pipelines begins to decrease as the length of the project increases. This is also true for greenhouse gas emissions. The energy used for the cooling process and subsequent decompression can be harnessed to some degree for various purposes. For example in Japan LNG users have found that the use of cryogenic power production for deep freeze food storage units can be a derivative benefit of LNG. When comparing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions pipelines come out far “greener” than LNG. For example, in Europe, pipeline transmission has a seven-fold lower carbon footprint as with LNG. However, the GHG contributions of pipelines increase over distance considerably due to fugitive emissions of methane that are often inevitable along large pipeline tracks and these grow much faster than the transportation emissions from the tankers traveling over large distances. Therefore, pipeline GHG emissions equalize emissions from LNG transport when transport distance is around 7,500 km.[3]

The quality of gas from LNG may be superior to piped gas in terms of energy provided on combustion since impurities are often removed during the processing of LNG. However, the pollution impacts of the two kinds of gas often depend on how effectively appliances are designed to use each kind of gas. For example, a study conducted by Advantica Ltd. in England revealed that appliances that are designed for pipeline gas can produce higher nitrous oxide emissions when regasified LNG is fed to them.[4]

Although gas producers such as Qatar have chosen to focus on LNG as their primary export route, pipelines continue to be a vital force in the gas transport sector. Inflationary pressures in recent years have also affected LNG building costs far more than pipeline construction costs. In one such analysis conducted by Jensen Associates in 2008, LNG costs from 2004-2008, rose twice as fast as pipeline construction costs.[5] Environmental costs may tilt the balance further in favor of pipelines at shorter distances but both sectors are likely to strive towards continuous improvement. Customers of natural gas should continue to monitor the technological improvements of both transport methods as the race towards greening the supply line continues.


[1] Theodoropolos, Theodore E. Oil, Gas and Petrochemicals, Doha: State of Qatar Publications, 2009. Data on pipeline per country from Oil and Gas Journal, February 2005.

[2] See Ali, Saleem and Parag Khanna, “Energizing Peace” Foreign Policy, November, 2009. Online at: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/11/05/energizing_peace

[3]Kavalov, B, H. Petric and A. Georgakaki, Liqueified Natural Gas for Europe: some Important issues for consideration. Brussels, Belgium: European Commission, Joint Research Centre, 2009

[4] Brown M., Bryant N., Haynes D., Study on LNG Quality Issues, a study for the European Commission – JRC Institute for Energy prepared by Advantica Ltd., Loughborough, The UK, April 2008.

[5] Jensen Associates Study quoted in presentation at the Qatar Gas Conference, March, 2009.