European Crisis May Accelerate Switch from Russian Gas. Switch to What is the Question…

February 14, 2022

There’s a lot of American, Qatari, and other gas going to Europe right now, as a fossil gas squeeze causes prices to soar. Informed observers like International Energy Agency head Fatih Birol say at least part of the crunch is Russia withholding supplies.

Thing is, while it sounds like great news for the US gas industry, if US supply lines grow, and US domestic prices continue to rise in sync with Europe and Asia, that too will give a competitive boost to solar, wind and storage technologies.

Inside Climate News:

Even in the long history of world leaders using energy as a foreign policy weapon, President Joe Biden’s threat last week was unusual for both its reach and its display of confidence.

“If Russia invades—that means tanks or troops crossing the border of Ukraine again—then there will no longer be a Nord Stream 2,” Biden said Monday. “We will bring an end to it.”

Policy experts have little doubt that the United States, perhaps uniquely among nations, has the economic clout to follow through on Biden’s pledge to reach across the Atlantic and kill Russia’s new $11 billion natural gas pipeline to Europe. They are less certain that the prospect of losing the ability to sell gas through the Nord Stream 2, which now lies dormant beneath the Baltic Sea, will be sufficient to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading the former Soviet state. Last week, Putin’s forces began major military drills in Belarus, Russia’s ally on Ukraine’s northern border, in an escalation of the troop build-up that has been underway for weeks.

But whatever happens in the weeks ahead—a cooling of the tension, or the worst military conflict in Europe since World War II—experts believe the clash already has become a turning point for the uneasy energy relationship between Russia and Europe. 

For the European Union, dependence on Russia for natural gas has long been a vulnerability and a contradiction for an economic bloc that sees itself as a global leader in the transition to clean energy. Putin’s threats to Ukraine have increased pressure within the EU to break free of Russian gas, and Nord Stream 2 may be the first example of how this resolve plays out. A pivotal question, from the standpoint of climate, is whether the EU will replace Russian gas imports with renewable energy, or just more natural gas from other sources—including the United States.

Europe’s greens, by themselves, were unable to block construction of the pipeline, which they opposed as antithetical to the continent’s climate goals. But now, the national security imperative provides a new chance to stop Nord Stream 2, if Europe acts in concert with the U.S., as experts anticipate in the case of a Russian invasion.

“My expectation is that if Russia invades Ukraine, Nord Stream 2 will be killed by the Europeans themselves,” said Cedric Ryngaert, a professor of public international law at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “It will speed up a change in energy policy in Europe, because you don’t want to be so dependent on Russia, which already has partly limited the flow of gas over the last few months. You want a reliable partner, and Russia is not a reliable partner.”

Energy has been a tool in the foreign policy arsenal of nations at least as long as there has been international trade in fossil fuel. The Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s, in which the United States was targeted for its support of Israel, may be the best known example.

But the U.S. also has wielded the energy weapon, sometimes changing the course of history, as with the de facto oil embargo it imposed on Japan in the months before Pearl Harbor. Other  examples are only dimly remembered—like President Ronald Reagan’s short-lived sanctions against the Soviet Union’s giant Yamal-Europe natural gas pipeline project in retaliation for its role in the 1981 political crackdown in Poland.

Although the Biden administration has had missteps in its dealings with Europe—most notably over its rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan last year—it has worked hard to build a united front within NATO in opposition to Russia’s moves on the Ukraine border. The New York Times reported that Biden’s team conducted at least 180 senior-level meetings or contacts with European officials between mid-November and the end of January—more than twice daily.

The most tangible display of the Biden administration’s support for its EU allies is an informal flotilla of ships carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) across the Atlantic from the U.S. Gulf Coast. Europe’s gas supply is running short and prices are at all-time highs, in part because of a slow-down in flows from Russia. In recent years, Russia has been the source of 35 percent of Europe’s natural gas, with Germany—the end point for Nord Stream 2—particularly dependent on the Russian supply. To protect Europe from a Russian cutoff, either intentional or incidental to an invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration has pledged to secure gas from gas-producing countries and companies to shore up Europe’s supplies.

By January, LNG imports had surged to 34 percent of Europe’s supply, while Russian gas dwindled to 17 percent, according to the energy consulting firm IHS Markit. LNG imports from the United States rose to a new record, accounting for the largest share by far. “Our industry is doing what it can to help,” the Natural Gas Council, a coalition including the American Petroleum Institute and other major U.S. energy industry groups, said in a letter to Biden on Friday.

Experts say that Biden also laid the groundwork for cooperation with Europe by showing he was sensitive to the continent’s concerns about strategic autonomy last year. After four months in office, Biden waived the sanctions on Nord Stream 2 that had been belatedly imposed by Trump, allowing the pipeline to be completed.

“I think that reflected a calculation by the Biden administration that after the four years of the Trump administration, it was important to try to rebuild the relationship with Berlin,” said Steven Pifer, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who is now a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. But he said that Biden’s assertive statement on Nord Stream 2 last week shows that the calculations have changed due to Russia’s actions. “At this point, if there’s a major Russian military assault on Ukraine, I think the Germans are going to be told, you can end it yourself, or we’re going to end it, because we think this is part of the price that the Russians have to pay,” said Pifer.

Putin has characterized his move as a defensive response against the threat of NATO expansion. But in Europe, it has undercut the belief that increased trade with Russia would increase mutual security, a notion rooted in ideas dating back to 18th century German philosopher Immanual Kant’s writings on an “ethos of universal hospitality” as a key to peace.

“It’s the idea that you will make Russia more liberal and democratic because exchanging goods also leads to exchanging thoughts and freedoms,” said Ryngaert. “Suddenly, we now realize this is not how it works.”

For Germany, which already gets 40 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, the tension with Russia means that the Greens are no longer the only ones talking about the need to accelerate the nation’s drive to its goal of 80 percent renewables by 2030. “Germany will go out of the use of gas and oil and coal within 25 years, so we will not depend on the import of fossil fuels to Germany anymore,” Scholz said in an interview last Monday with CNN.

It’s not a given, though, that Europe will replace Russian gas with renewable energy. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, on Thursday announced plans for a major build-out of nuclear energy—including up to 14 new generation reactors—to reduce its reliance on energy imports.

So while pressure is certainly building throughout Europe to end energy dependence on its fossil fuel-rich neighbor, the most immediate responses to the Russia-spawned crisis have been more drilling, more imports and talk of even more imports. It’s not yet clear whether a European energy break from Russia would mean more alternative energy or more alternative sources of natural gas.

long article, more at link.

5 Responses to “European Crisis May Accelerate Switch from Russian Gas. Switch to What is the Question…”

  1. renewableguy Says:

    You don’t want to depend on Russia with their tyrannies seeking more power. Capitalism just can’t work in a country like that.

  2. J4Zonian Says:

    Germany gets 47% of its electricity from renewables.

    It’s extremely unlikely France will build 14 more reactors any time soon. If it builds any (Flamanville being their latest and most notorious attempt) they’ll just replace those due to retire. In any case they’ll be unable to compete with wind, solar, and batteries as those continue to drop in price (despite momentary fluctuations). The article cited said 17 of France’s reactors were shut down in December, 10 still are, and that Macron also announced plans for 50 new offshore wind farms, a doubling of onshore wind power, and a tenfold increase in solar by 2030. They’ll almost certainly build more than that of each, and the sooner the better, since it’s clear intermittent nuclear power can’t be counted on.

    • John Oneill Says:

      ‘If it builds any (Flamanville being their latest and most notorious attempt) they’ll just replace those due to retire.’
      The only reactors that have to retire are the British gas-cooled, graphite moderated designs – there’s no way to replace the cracking graphite. Water cooled and moderated ones are being licensed to eighty years in the US. French reactors, of similar design, were mostly built in the eighties, and are only thirty to forty years old.
      This podcast discusses some reasons why French nukes are only running at two thirds capacity – ‘Are Nuclear Plants Immortal?

      • J4Zonian Says:

        So you agree with everything I said. Great. They can’t compete with wind and solar, even (or especially) with batteries. They are struggling at a capacity factor about the same as new offshore wind, France’s latest attempt to build has been, like Hinky Point and the last couple US reactors, a miserable failure, and even if they build any reactors it will barely keep up with those they have to close. Thank you for being honest.

        And as insane as it is to build any nukes, it’s 80 times more insane to license any for that long. There’s no experience with any lasting that long, and a lot of bad experience with ones lasting half that long. Parts degrade, things leak, and the operators, utilities, regulators, and nook boosting dupes and shills all lie about it. What could be more insane than a nuclear reactor?

        Oh yeah, nuclear war. Or nuclear reactors in a war zone.

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Getting rid of [locally sourced] coal in Germany has been a domestic political struggle for Germany. Some of the record deadly flooding July 2021 in western Germany was in the heart of their coal country. I had a fleeting hope that it would convince pro-coal locals about the reality and severity of climate change. It would be a crime if Germany started to fall back on coal as a way to free itself of Russian natgas.

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