Europe has an energy problem. That has been painfully apparent as it braces for winter and potential supply disruptions of Russian gas through Ukraine loom large over the continent. Putin is now pushing for the EU to guarantee Kiev’s ability to pay for gas the winter before it turns flows back on, and in so doing is pushing on a pressure point. And, as the FT reports, Europe’s options for replacing Russian gas are quite limited:
The EU imports more than half the energy it consumes, and Russia is its biggest supplier of oil, coal and natural gas. In Europe’s capitals there is a palpable sense of déjà vu, in view of the 2006 and 2009 stand-offs between Moscow and Kiev, that held Europe to ransom.
Getting away from dependence on Russian gas will likely mean an increase in emissions as gas is supplanted by much dirtier coal, a sticking point for the supposedly green-minded bloc:
Jonathan Stern, senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, says: “If you want to use less gas, in many countries that will mean more coal [usage] and you kiss your carbon dioxide emissions targets goodbye.” Renewables would need subsidies, while alternative gas imports would cost more, he adds.
What other options are there, then? Nuclear energy is an attractive option, but in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster many in Europe are reluctant to move forward with new plants, and indeed Germany is in the process of phasing out the zero-carbon energy source. Commercial production of domestic reserves of shale gas hasn’t yet taken off, due to a mix of geologic complexity, bureaucratic red tape, and staunch local opposition. Starry-eyed greens will point to renewables as an option for diversifying away from Russian hydrocarbons—Putin has no hold on the sun or wind, they’ll be quick to point out—but these sources can only serve as peak supplies. That is, due to the intermittency of wind and solar energy production, they can’t be relied upon to consistently provide a baseload amount of power, and until more effective storage technologies become available, renewables won’t be able to replace fossil fuels like-for-like. LNG is another oft-touted option for Europe, but with Asian buyers paying a hefty premium for the ship-carried energy source these days, Europe will have to pay out the nose for the privilege—something the continent’s struggling economies won’t be happy to do.This all adds up to an undeniable truth: Europe needs Russian energy, and that won’t be changing anytime soon. Putin of course understands this, and will continue to use that to great effect in his standoff with the West.