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Biden, E.U. announce plan to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian energy

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gives a joint statement with President Biden at the U.S. Mission in Brussels on March 25. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
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BRUSSELS — The United States and the European Commission announced Friday a joint task force to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian fossil fuels, as the West looks to further punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

President Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the agreement in a joint appearance, stressing that the initiative will both reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy while keeping the countries on track to meet their climate goals.

“We’re going to have to make sure the families in Europe can get through this winter and the next while we’re building the infrastructure for a diversified, resilient and clean energy future,” Biden said in brief remarks at the U.S. Chief of Mission Residence in Brussels.

Some experts, however, suggested that ensuring fossil fuel supplies for power plants and home heating could undercut the European Union’s plans to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 55 percent below 1990 levels by the end of the decade.

As part of the partnership, the United States will work with other nations to increase liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to Europe by at least 15 billion cubic meters this year with the aim of providing larger shipments in the future. U.S. officials would not say which other countries will provide the additional gas shipments this year.

Von der Leyen praised the effort, saying the increased supply will replace the LNG supply the bloc now receives from Russia. “Our partnership aims to sustain us through this war, to work on our independence,” she said.

In Europe, the deal was greeted as a symbol of U.S. support amid crisis — but one that is unlikely to solve the region’s energy woes.

“The U.S. is an energy superpower, and we need this sort of alliance to not be blackmailed in Europe by the Russians,” said Georg Zachmann, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank.

Fifteen billion cubic meters “is not nothing, it is a sensible amount,” he said. “But it is still far from what we would need from the U.S. in terms of supplies to feel safe.”

The E.U. has long been heavily dependent on Russian energy. It planned to quit — eventually — as part of a broader shift away from fossil fuels. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed that timeline.

About 40 percent of E.U. gas comes from Russia, as well as more than a quarter of its oil. Europe imports over six times more oil from Russia than the United States does, according to the White House.

Here’s where Russian oil flows

In the aftermath of the invasion, some E.U. countries argued for a full boycott while others pushed for a more gradual approach, arguing that weaning Europe off cheap and abundant Russian energy required time.

When the United States went ahead with a full ban on Russian gas, oil and coal earlier this month, the E.U. announced a plan to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds this year, reducing — but not actually severing — energy ties to Moscow.

In the weeks since, with Ukrainian civilians under siege, some E.U. countries have called forcefully for a total, or near total boycotts. Others have all but ruled that out, worried about price shocks and inflation.

“As long as we are purchasing energy from Russia, we are financing the war, and this is the big problem that we have,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said Thursday.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo is one of several E.U. leaders who has called for a more incremental approach on energy. He said Thursday that a total boycott of Russian oil and gas would have a “devastating impact on the European economy” and is unnecessary.

Biden acknowledged the challenges for Europe in completely cutting off Russian energy, but he said the steps being taken were critical to preventing Russian President Vladimir Putin from using energy to “coerce and manipulate his neighbors.”

“I know that eliminating Russian gas will have costs for Europe, but it’s not only the right thing to do from a moral standpoint, it’s going to put us on a much stronger strategic footing,” he said.

Though the arrangement likely requires new infrastructure, including pipelines to import the gas, the two leaders said the partnership aims to reduce the demand for natural gas in the long term and to shift toward renewable energy. Officials said they would work to expedite planning and approval for new clean energy projects and to advance the production and use of clean and renewable hydrogen.

Europe wants to cut Russian energy. Climate policies can help.

Not everyone will see the deal as a win for climate. Lisa Fischer, a program leader at E3G, an independent climate-change think tank in Brussels, said the deal’s focus on LNG and the proposed timeline appeared “short sighted.”

“We need a temporary ramp-up of energy supplies, but we don’t need them for as long as suggested,” she said.

The White House said Friday that it will work with the commission toward ensuring supply “until at least 2030″ — a relatively long period.

Under the European Green Deal announced last year, the bloc plans to meet 40 percent of the continent’s energy needs with renewable sources, replace fossil-fuel powered heating appliances in tens of millions of buildings and make all infrastructure drastically more efficient. Added together, these planned climate measures would supply the E.U. with the equivalent of at least 303 bcm of natural gas per year by 2030.

A recent E3G analysis found that clean energy could replace two-thirds of Russian gas imports by 2025, Fischer said. “If the U.S. presses for a contract where the E.U. has to take gas when they have renewables and don’t need that anymore, that’s a really bad outcome,” she said.

“If it doesn’t have that outcome, how many U.S. investors will invest without massive subsidies?” she continued. “At this point, we just don’t know enough.”

Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute questioned why the U.S. would focus on infrastructure locking in further fossil fuel extraction amid the climate crisis.

“Pushing new toxic export facilities and decades’ more methane gas is a death sentence for those on the front lines of the climate emergency, and it won’t solve Europe’s current crisis,” Siegel said.

“President Biden must lead the world with a rapid buildout of renewable energy — not feed the fossil fuel beast,” she said. “Approving more export terminals, pipelines and fossil fuel production only throws fuel on the fire of our burning world.”

Oil and gas industry officials made it clear that the administration would have to support expanded drilling and transportation projects to deliver on the new pledges. “Today’s announcement is an important signal that must be followed up with policy and actions to encourage domestic oil and natural gas production and associated pipeline and export infrastructure,” Marty Durbin, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, said in a statement.

Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University’s global climate center, said that “maybe the most consequential part” of the announcement was the commitment from the E.U. to source liquefied natural gas from the United States.

“There are several U.S. LNG projects that needed financing, not just U.S. government approval, to get over the finish line, and this deal is a strong signal that European companies will be the ones to get these LNG projects to be built,” Bordoff said. “The question I have is how the Europeans will do that.”

Robert McNally, president of the Rapidan Energy Group, said that executives he’s talked to say that they would favor loan guarantees from either the U.S. or European governments.

McNally said the agreement today was “almost a plan for a plan.” But he said that didn’t mean that Europe would falter in its efforts to wean itself from Russian oil or gas. “There has been a sea change not only here but in Europe,” McNally said. “Weaning yourself off Russia? Nobody was talking about that before this invasion.”

Shortly after the announcement, Biden left Brussels for Rzeszów, Poland, where he met with U.S. troops stationed there and was briefed on the humanitarian response to the crisis. The president will hold a bilateral meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda on Saturday.

European leaders meet Friday in Brussels to continue meetings on what the war means for energy.

Pager reported from Warsaw. Quentin Ariès reported from Brussels. Sarah Kaplan and Steven Mufson in Washington contributed to this report.