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The 2015 Malta gas power station: Environmental concerns

Energy. Energy. Energy – This was one of the many highly politicised issues we endured during the latest Maltese electoral campaign. With the onset of the new Labour government, it is expected that Malta will have a new gas-fired power station by the end of 2015. But how much does the public REALLY know about such an energy strategy?

 Let me start by disentangling some rather confusing energy terms:

  • Natural Gas (NG) = a type of fuel also known as methane, with a chemical formula of CH4
  • Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs) = Hydrocarbons of smaller masses (generally being ethane, propane, butane, isobutane and pentane) which come out as gases with the extraction process of Natural Gas (methane). Pentane comes out as a liquid, but the other chemicals are pressurised and turned into liquids and stored in tanks.
  • Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), is a mixture of NGLs (generally propane and butane) which is sold in tanks for heating appliances. LPG is in no way, shape or form NG – they have different chemical compositions. They are similar as apples are to oranges.

LPG is commonly used as a source of heat for cooking (Photo credit: George Shuklin)

  • Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) – This is simply Natural Gas that has been pressurized and cooled to -270°F (-127°C) for transport – remember that you have to turn gas to a liquid in order to transport it in sufficient quantities from point A to B.

The future power station will be making use of LNG, which is a rather costly fuel in terms of extracting it, converting it to a usable and transporting it to a designated location (since you need highly specialised equipment). So if people think that the new power station will be powered by the same stuff we use to boil our kettles, they are grossly mistaken. The fuel we will be using is much more powerful, with a greater heating potential and hence much more dangerous to transport and store.

A typical LNG carrier. Pictured above is the LNG Rivers, which has a capacity of 135,000 cubic metres (Photo credit: Pline)

It is rather irresponsible of the new government that it has not formally published a detailed environmental impact assessment and shared it with the Maltese public, especially after issuing a call for expression of interest in the local media. Such is the result of an electoral campaign predominantly centred around socio-economic issues – after all, the only reason why the Labour party pledged this power station was to reduce electricity tariffs.

For the sake of argument, I will use a recent example to highlight the eventual environmental impacts that this impending power station will have on the quality of Maltese life. On the 5th of December 2012, the UK Chancellor George Osborne unveiled a new gas strategy. Below is the opening quote by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Edward Davey:

“The UK faces a threefold energy challenge: how to keep the lights on, at affordable prices, while moving towards a sustainable low-carbon future. I firmly believe the best way to meet these goals is with a competitive, diverse, low-carbon energy mix. A mix where gas continues to play a vital role.”

This statement sounds all too familiar to the situation in Malta, except for the sustainable low-carbon future part which was mostly absent in the political campaign.

First of all, (this is quite unrelated to the point of this post) but notice how the UK have placed energy and climate change in the same ministry, while our new government separated them between two ministers. How on earth do you expect to tackle climate change issues if you have to compromise between two ministers? One cannot exist without the other, the whole point of an energy minister is to offer cheaper and CLEANER alternatives. Separating energy and climate change is equivalent to separating transport and infrastructure – it will only deteriorate future policies and processes. But as long as we build this power station and reduce these blessed energy tariffs, who cares about climate change right?

EDF’s new gas-fuelled West Burton power station in Nottinghamshire. Please note that the smoke being emitted from this station is actually water vapour from cooling towers, which is not a greenhouse gas (Photo credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images via theguardian)

The new gas strategy proposed by the British chancellor sparked an angered reaction from green groups and businesses promoting a cleaner and more sustainable future using wind and other low-carbon producing alternatives. This strategy was also cautioned by the British government’s own Committee on Climate Change, that such ventures will break commitments to lower carbon emissions, especially when gas price futures remain uncertain.

Gas prices have been steadily rising in the UK over the past decades (admittedly, the UK does have its own supply, unlike Malta who would need to solely rely on imports). The US will eventually start exporting cheap gas, but we need to account for a high demand from Asian countries, and most notably China. It will be interesting to see who will end up being Malta’s gas provider, and how the fees will eventually fluctuate – Gas prices are NOT the same as oil prices; the latter are regulated by a world market and so each country would purchase oil in terms of the current world price. Gas prices are not as regulated, so each country will set their gas prices and sell at will. The gas strategy document admits that:

“ultimately there is significant uncertainty about future gas prices, so we need to be prepared for both high and low gas price scenarios.”

Climate change activists had launched a No Dash for Gas campaign opposing this new strategy. The argument proposed by this campaign is simple: In the UK, EDF and other big energy companies (as supported by the strategy launched by George Osborne) are set to lock the UK for decades into a 40 newly proposed gas-fired stations, destroying climate change targets (which would technically make their use illegal since the UK has to adhere to legally binding greenhouse gas emissions).

So what will be happening in Malta?

Is the new gas-fired power station environmentally sustainable? Please bear in mind that the comparison between Malta and the UK is highly superficial, but it is quite chilling how no one has so far gave the public any detail about emissions of the new station versus the current oil-fuelled station.

How would Dr. Leo Brincat (as minister of Environment, sustainable development and climate change) react if Dr. Konrad Mizzi (as minister of energy) increases greenhouse gas emissions? The Maltese public might get their tariffs reduced, but they may certainly get that at a dear cost of increased air pollution. And even though some experts are claiming that proposals will see the CO2 produced being shipped out of the country, it will obviously be at a high cost.

So which one will be at a loss? Reducing the energy tariffs or (illegally) failing to comply with emission quotas? Unfortunately, all we can do is wait and see while these said ‘experts’ steam roll through.

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