Karel Beckman and Jilles van den Beukel
The Natural Gas Programme at OIES has produced a significant amount of research over the past three years on the issue of the decarbonisation of the gas sector in Europe. We have highlighted the challenges that this poses for traditional players across the gas industry in the region, as it has been made clear that gas has a limited future in the EU unless it can show how it will contribute to achieving a net zero emissions target by 2050. We now examine the strategy of a specific country, the Netherlands, which relies more on natural gas than any other country in the EU but which has embarked on an energy transition intended to lead to a complete phaseout of unabated natural gas consumption and production by 2050. This provides an excellent case study of the challenges, risks and costs that will be faced by the gas industry as a whole in the EU over the next three decades.
The prospects for natural gas in the Netherlands changed dramatically between 2012 and 2018 due to rising concerns over climate change and induced earthquakes in the gas-producing province of Groningen, leading to a shift in policy focus from financial to environmental and safety concerns. In October 2017 the newly elected government adopted ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets implying that consumption of unabated natural gas must cease completely by 2050. In March 2018 the government announced that production from the giant Groningen field, for over 50 years the mainstay of Dutch gas production, will be phased out as quickly as possible and no later than 2030.
At the instigation of the government, civil society organisations negotiated a detailed Climate Accord which indicates how the government-set greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in five economic sectors (electricity, industry, built environment, transport and agriculture) are to be reached. The final version of the Climate Accord, which entails a complete conversion from gas-fired to ‘sustainable heating’ of all buildings in the Netherlands, 100 per cent renewable power production, and a conversion to ‘sustainable’ (net zero emission) industrial heating processes by 2050 (with intermediate targets for 2030), was sent to Parliament in June 2019.
Despite the political consensus on climate policy goals, and the speedy realisation of a Climate Accord, there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to what shape the energy transition in the Netherlands will take. Progress has been slow, particularly in the buildings sector and industry, and surrounded by controversy. It is also unclear to what extent the Dutch energy system will be electrified, and what role there will be for hydrogen.
In response to the political and public opposition to natural gas, the Dutch gas industry developed a strategy based on the continued use of ‘molecules’ in the energy system in the form of ‘sustainable gases’ (hydrogen, biogas, biomethane). In this system it sees a future role for itself as a producer, trader and transporter of sustainable gases, while developing new activities in areas in line with its expertise, such as offshore energy activities, ‘deep’ geothermal, transport and storage of CO2, and construction of district heating networks. For most of these alternative activities, the industry prepared ‘roadmaps’ in 2017 and 2018, but to date few concrete projects have been undertaken and it is unclear whether the industry will succeed in its self-imposed transformation.
We conclude that, although the Dutch gas industry has responded proactively to the challenges with which it is confronted and the goal to phase out natural gas faces technical, political and economic limitations, the transition to a zero-emission energy system is likely to continue and could represent a serious threat to the future of the Dutch gas industry.