How We Can Help Europe End Its Reliance on Russian Gas
Simply replacing it with U.S. gas isn’t the answer.
The war in Ukraine, now more than two months old, has made Europe’s transition to renewable energy even more urgent. Revenues from Russian oil and gas exports to the European Union (E.U.), Russia’s biggest buyer, are financing Vladimir Putin's war machine, including the horrific war crimes that have been coming to light. Increasingly, the need to move away from fossil fuels is not only a climate imperative but a geopolitical one: If importing countries want to stop Russia from using its oil and gas revenues to wage an unjustified war, then they must find a way to end their toxic business relationships.
The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has acknowledged as much. “We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us," she stated in a news release in early March. Highlighting Europe’s need to “accelerate the clean energy transition,” she noted that “[t]he quicker we switch to renewables and hydrogen, combined with more energy efficiency, the quicker we will be truly independent and master our energy system.”
Of course, the question of what to do in the short term remains. Here in the United States, fossil fuel interests and numerous politicians from both parties think the answer is to ramp up the production of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and ship as much of it as possible overseas. As part of a deal designed to help Europe cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds this year, President Biden pledged to increase exports of LNG to the E.U. by at least 15 billion cubic meters (bcm), for a total of about 37 bcm overall.
The pledge, however, is largely symbolic—and not only because the U.S. contribution would represent a mere fraction of what Europe needs in the near term. (To put the amount of 37 bcm in perspective, Europe burned through nearly 400 bcm of natural gas in 2020; last year alone, Russia sold the E.U. about 155 bcm of the stuff.) The simple truth, as energy analysts noted almost immediately after Biden’s pledge, is that the logistics, mechanics, and economics just don’t work out.
Exporting LNG isn’t just a matter of tossing canisters onto a boat. In order to send natural gas overseas, one must chill it down to -259 degrees Fahrenheit so that it becomes a transportable liquid and then prepare it for shipment at a special facility known as an export terminal. Right now, U.S. export terminals are operating at full capacity, meaning that we can’t process and ship any more LNG than we’re already currently processing and shipping. And while the United States is indeed constructing new export terminals, those facilities won’t be online for several years. The problem is mirrored on the receiving end: European import terminals—which return the LNG to its gaseous state before sending it inland via pipeline—aren’t equipped, at the moment, to handle a significant uptick in supply.
If the United States really wants to help Ukraine by hastening Europe’s divestment from Russian fossil fuels, it needs to do more than promise that more American LNG is on its way. Fortunately, the Biden administration understands this—and is thinking seriously about Europe’s long-term needs. “The administration isn’t just sending LNG,” says John Bowman, NRDC’s managing director for government affairs. “They’re also trying to share advanced technology, like heat pumps and solar and wind infrastructure, and helping with enhanced weatherization. These strategies will still take time, but they do have the potential to help the E.U. reduce its dependence on Russian energy—which will ultimately help Ukraine.”
These aren’t just hypothetical solutions. The E.U.’s “Fit for 55” plan to cut emissions 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 already envisioned that its gas consumption would drop 40 percent by that year. According to one recent analysis, the full implementation of that plan—along with additional clean energy and gas imports through existing infrastructure—could help the E.U. slash its demand for Russian gas completely over the next three years.
Here are some ways the United States could help the E.U. get there.
Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency
As part of the REPowerEU initiative unveiled last month by von der Leyen’s European Commission, the E.U. aims to replace or obviate the need for two-thirds of the Russian gas it currently imports by the end of the year. The United States has a part to play in this endeavor, especially in regard to the sharing of resources and technologies that support energy efficiency. Referred to as the “first fuel” by the head of the International Energy Agency, energy efficiency is indisputably the most reliable and controllable form of energy security. By significantly boosting our domestic manufacturing and export capacity of such basic items as insulation, air sealing, heat pumps, and smart thermostats, the United States can get these resources across the Atlantic in time for winter. If done right, increased production of these energy-saving tools could also speed up their deployment within the United States—a double win. In terms of time and cost, this would be a far lighter lift for our country than the prospect of building new, and often dangerous, LNG infrastructure. And the payoff would be quick and substantial.
More resilient grids
Similarly, the United States could help accelerate the deployment of more complex technologies such as batteries and microgrids, which are capable of providing inexpensive, reliable power and would be of crucial importance should pipeline or grid infrastructure suffer damage or face shutoff. Natural gas transported over land travels through a network of pipelines, several of which connect Russia with its neighbors. But Russia can turn off the gas at its discretion—as it did earlier this week, when it suspended shipments to Poland and Bulgaria, both of which have expressed their support for Ukraine in the current conflict. Putin has also threatened to cut off gas to Germany in retaliation for Germany’s decision to end construction on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would have doubled the Russian gas flow. Should the current gas supply be severed or further disrupted, effective energy storage would be essential.
Efforts to deploy new renewable energy projects in the E.U. are already strong, but given the high consumption of gas in some countries, more efforts are urgently needed. While Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania have been relying on Russian gas, these three countries also have tremendous potential for expanding their wind power industries, both on and offshore. The United States could help them secure the financial and technological assistance needed to kickstart the deployment of new wind projects in Eastern Europe.
It may not be enough simply to put material resources into the hands of Europeans; given the potential for war-related labor shortages, we may need to provide more hands on deck. As many Ukrainian laborers employed in the construction sectors of various Central and Eastern European countries return home to fight, we could send American workers overseas as temporary replacements to install high-efficiency heat pumps and other clean energy and efficiency-related technologies. As a bonus, these U.S. workers would gain valuable skills and experience that they could then parlay into permanent jobs in our rapidly growing domestic heat-pump market upon returning home.
“Right now, the E.U. is witnessing the dark ramifications of what it means to do business with a petro-aggressor like Putin,” says Bowman. As Ukrainians fight for their lives, they need direct aid in many forms: food, medicine, water, and weaponry. Ending the E.U.’s reliance on Russian fossil fuels is itself another form of aid—one that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has acknowledged is a matter of existential significance for his country. Europe is on the right track, but it needs to move much faster. Our country can help.
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