Over the past week, the “worst case” scenario for the rising tensions on the Russia/Ukraine border has come to pass, as Russian troops invaded Ukraine from several directions while launching artillery from several locations along the border. The international community has been struggling to shape a coherent response to the invasion, in no small part because European countries rely on Russian natural gas for 40% of their energy generation needs. That fact has made them very reluctant to do anything that would impact their ability to source gas.
To its credit, Gazprom, the Russian state-owned oil firm which has a monopoly on natural gas exports by pipeline from Russia, has said their service is continuing uninterrupted to customers across Europe; but, one wonders, for how much longer? That uncertainty highlights the vital importance of energy policy for governments around the world.
With the linking of European electricity production with Russian natural gas, the Europeans were able to burn cleaner natural gas, and the Russian government had a steady income source from those sales; a win-win, on paper at least. Over the past several years, many governments in Central Europe have been pursuing aggressive “decarbonization” policies, designed to make their energy sector even more green. This includes a large push to renewables such as solar and wind, and, in Germany’s case, decommissioning nuclear powerplants (Germany’s remaining nuclear plants were expected to shut down by the end of 2022, but as of this writing, the German government is exploring options to extend their operations). The ongoing slowdown in coal burning electrical generation and the variability of production from the renewable sector has caused massive gyrations in the price of natural gas throughout Europe all winter long.
This demand surge from Europe has given President Putin a very powerful tool in deterring the more severe sanctions; if the west, broadly, cracks down too hard on Russia, it is feared that Putin could turn off the natural gas supply with a few months of winter left ahead. While global governments are searching for workarounds, this leverage has bought the Russian government time.
The response to Russian aggression could have been much stronger and happened more quickly if these countries weren’t wedded to Russian energy, and it’s a reminder that, though the United States is a long way from Ukraine, energy security at home reduces our exposure to bad actors abroad. The push that was started after 9/11 to see America reach a place of energy security was an “all forms considered” push that elevated biofuels to the global conversation, saw new technologies adapted in oil exploration and drilling, and saw wind turbines and solar farms start appearing across the country, has been flagging in recent years as renewables take center stage. This conflagration in Ukraine should serve to remind us how vital that goal is. A country that can provide it’s own power, is a country with far more freedom in the global realm, and the United States has the capacity to be energy independent, and indeed the capacity to be a global energy supplier to those countries who need more options.
But for America to take this place in the world, the country must have policies that encourage and reward the work of exploration – whether that exploration is for fossil fuels, new uses for biofuels, or even solar or wind. Unleash the abilities of American researchers, engineers, farmers, and builders and allow them to meet this global demand.