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Opinion Russia’s invasion of Ukraine signals a new era of energy geopolitics

The nuclear power plant of Biblis, Germany, in 2011 — the year it was shut down. (Michael Probst/AP)

With his brutal invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has opened a new era in global politics — and laid bare the vulnerabilities of the post-Cold War international system. Among these vulnerabilities, dependence on Russian oil and gas has proved the Achilles’ heel of security for Europe and, by extension, the United States. Quite simply, Russia has fossil fuels in abundance and has used this as a geopolitical tool to influence consuming countries such as Germany and Italy, blunting their willingness to take a stand against Mr. Putin’s aggressive policies until it is too late. The lesson is that the West needs an energy policy that is not only environmentally sustainable but geopolitically sustainable as well. Cutting off the United States’ relatively modest oil imports from Russia, as many in Congress are demanding, may send a necessary message of repudiation to Mr. Putin. But, it is no substitute for a long-term approach, which will have to carefully balance urgency and realism.

First, urgency. The case for shifting from fossil fuels to renewables was already strong. The need to cut dependency on Russia — which provides 40 percent of the European Union’s natural gas — only strengthens it. European Union countries are already investing heavily in renewables; the United States still has an opportunity to follow their example by approving the green energy programs in President Biden’s Build Back Better plan or, even more usefully, enacting a tax on carbon.

The fact is, however, that Russia’s invasion disrupted global peace long before the world’s most developed industrial economies had come close to transcending fossil fuels. In the United States, 79 percent of U.S. primary energy consumption in 2020 came from oil, natural gas and coal, according to the Energy Department. The comparable figure for the European Union is about 74.5 percent. This is where realism comes in: As we work toward less reliance on fossil fuels, the United States and its allies must make sure that the oil and gas we still do use comes in sufficient quantity from suppliers politically compatible with the West. The alternative would be shortages and crippling cost increases, for consumers and businesses, and that could undermine the political consensus for a strong stand against Russia. Indeed, it could directly strengthen Russia by increasing prices for its remaining oil and gas exports.

Germany has taken a step in the right direction by suspending the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia and announcing that it will expedite the construction of two new liquefied natural gas terminals that could receive supplies from other countries, including the United States. Europe is also willing and able to prevent shortages this year by tapping its reserves. Soon, it may have to do more: extending the life of Germany’s last three nuclear power plants, or building new ones elsewhere; increasing production at gas fields in the Netherlands despite possible increased seismic risks. The United States can and should expand gas production for export, consistent with environmental safeguards. From now on, democracies need to set energy policy not only to save the planet but also to stop Russia from dominating it.

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