President Biden is in Brussels today to discuss ways the United States can help Europe end its dependence on Russian energy. It’s a conversation that could lead to any number of outcomes for the global fight against climate change, analysts say.
European Union officials already have said that Russia’s war in Ukraine has provided the shock needed to rapidly reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and pivot toward clean energy. Getting there won’t be easy or immediate, however, and it could compel some policymakers—particularly in the United States—to back extending the use of fossil fuels as a way to blunt Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leverage.
The challenge will be not undermining the clean energy transition with short-term emergency measures.
“It is vital that governments ensure we keep the lights on, but this does not mean we can turn off our efforts to tackle climate change. I am very worried that our climate goals may well be another victim of Russia’s aggression,” Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, said at the opening of a meeting among energy ministers yesterday.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres expressed similar concerns earlier this week, saying an “all-of-the-above” strategy by the world’s major economies to replace Russian oil, gas and coal might knee-cap policies to cut fossil fuel use.
Biden’s visit comes as European leaders piece together a plan to cease fossil fuel imports from Russia, its leading supplier, by 2027. In the immediacy, that plan hinges on sourcing gas from a variety of suppliers, including the United States. It also includes demand-reduction measures and more support for the faster rollout of renewables (Climatewire, March 9).
Energy analysts say it’s an ambitious effort that would require significant policy support. It also could come at a high cost, both for the European economy and its broader climate goals.
If the Biden administration and European leaders focus so intently on creating new sources of oil and gas and ignore the opportunity of this moment to build out more clean energy sources, it’s going to extend the current overreliance on fossil fuels, said Michael O’Boyle, director of electricity policy for Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology.
It also could lead to additional long-term costs for consumers who still will be dependent on an energy source that long has been vulnerable to price spikes, O’Boyle added.
“If we lock ourselves into greater dependence on foreign fuels and forestall our transition to clean energy, it would raise costs and potentially raise dependence on other controversial sources of foreign oil and gas in the medium to long term,” he said. “This is an opportune moment to really accelerate the transition, especially in the building and transportation and industrial sector.”
A report published earlier this month by the Rhodium Group outlined several different policy options beyond shoring up liquefied natural gas supplies that the United States could pursue to help Europe reduce its dependence on Russian energy. Among its suggestions were help designing effective energy conservation programs and installing low-emissions technologies.
Another way the United States could help is by following through with its own decarbonization goals at home, said Jason Veysey, a senior scientist focused on energy system modeling at the Stockholm Environment Institute.
“This is a time when the United States can show solidarity for Europe and help prompt the right sort of transition,” he said.
Europe already has been outfront in efforts to decarbonize its economy. Last year, it laid out a package of legislation aimed at cutting its emissions 55 percent by 2030, and it has enshrined those targets into law.
A joint analysis by several climate think tanks found that Europe could achieve its targeted end to Russian energy imports without stalling the phaseout of coal or building new gas infrastructure.
Not an ‘either or’
Action aimed at reducing Europe’s reliance on Russian gas will be a “substantial topic of conservation” during Biden’s visit, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters yesterday aboard Air Force One.
He said the E.U. and the United States would work to create a practical road map toward achieving that goal and determine how the United States can contribute.
“I think you can expect the U.S. will look for ways to increase [liquefied natural gas supplies], surge LNG supplies to Europe, not just over the course of months, but over the course of years as well,” he said. “Of course, that amount will grow over time.”
In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Europe’s drive for energy security, the United States has called on domestic oil and gas companies to ramp up production, with output projected to reach record highs this year. But it’s limited in how much it can do and how quickly.
“We are exporting every molecule of natural gas that can be liquefied at a terminal that exists,” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said at the IEA summit yesterday.
Despite the push to increase production, stabilizing energy markets and acting to forestall climate catastrophe are not binary choices, she added.
“The climate is not going to wait on our efforts to confront autocrats,” said Granholm. “We must both increase reliable supply right now and accelerate our efforts for clean energy. The future of energy security, the future of economic security, the future of national security, the future of climate security, these are all inextricably bound together.”
Fossil fuels will continue to power the world in the near term, Granholm added. “But the decisions that we make today will shape the energy landscape of tomorrow.”
Climate hawks in Congress are frustrated that much of the attention on countering Russia has focused on ramping up domestic fossil fuel production.
“If we had solved this problem a decade ago, we wouldn’t have this vulnerability,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said yesterday in a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “We’re hostages to the oil and gas industry, which is now telling us that the solution for the hostages is to buy more oil and gas.”
Countries in Europe are divided. Some are rethinking coal phase-out plans or extending the life of nuclear plants. Germany said it landed a deal with Qatar to source more LNG and is planning to complete two regasification terminals to receive additional imports.
There are potential upsides to replacing Russian gas with U.S. LNG in the short term, according to a recent analysis by RMI. It found that the emissions intensity of gas pipeline exports from Russia to Europe are roughly double those from U.S. LNG exports (Climatewire, March 18).
That doesn’t mean promoting U.S. natural gas at the expense of renewable alternatives. But in a crisis it does provide an opportunity to curtail the carbon footprint of the natural gas that Europe is importing, said TJ Conway, who works on RMI’s Oil and Gas Solutions Initiative.
“We’re at a moment where energy security priorities are definitely very high,” he said. “That does not mean that they’re incompatible with energy transition priorities or climate priorities, and in fact I think that they are actually mutually reinforcing.”
The situation also could provide the United States with an opportunity to learn from Europe and see how it is prioritizing both, Conway added.
E.U. leaders, for example, are pushing for ways to reduce fossil fuel demand across the 27-member nation bloc through energy efficiency measures such as heat pumps, building retrofits or support for alternative transport.
Ana Marie Jaller-Makarewicz, a European energy analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said in the short term the United States can help supply the gas that’s needed to wean Europe off its Russian dependence.
Once the immediate crunch has passed, however, the United States should help the E.U. reduce demand for fossil fuels rather than expand supply.
“Future efforts should be on strengthening all those energy alternatives,” she said.
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.