US should help Europe kick its addiction to Russian fuel

If the connection between climate change and European security wasn’t obvious before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it certainly is now. The continent — and the rest of the world — has known for decades that reducing the use of oil, natural gas, and coal is the surest way to head off catastrophic climate change. But Europe has actually increased its reliance on Russian natural gas to heat its homes, power its industries, and generate its electricity, a shift that has not only contributed to climate change but has also put the continent in the position of financing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal war machine. Those bombs that are falling on Ukrainian civilians, and those tanks rolling through Ukrainian cities, were paid for with European money.

That all needs to change in a hurry, and it’s reasonable to expect Germany — the country most responsible for the continent’s calamitous addiction to Kremlin-controlled energy — to take the lead in that transition. The European Union has set a goal of slashing Russian natural gas imports by two-thirds by next winter and of quitting Russian fossil fuels total by 2027. That would be an extremely ambitious timetable in peacetime, but if the continent shifts to a war footing — As it must, with a savage conflict playing out on its eastern borders — then it should be achievable. The United States can and should play a supporting role, by exporting American natural gas as a short-term replacement for Russian supplies while helping the continent quit fossil fuels and replace them with wind, nuclear, hydrogen, and other clean energy sources.

Europe now gets around 40 percent of its natural gas and a quarter of its oil from Russia, reportedly at a cost of over $1 billion every day. But those figures mask major country-by-country differences: Germany and Italy depend most heavily on Russia for natural gas, while two-thirds of Poland’s oil comes from Russia. Even as Putin’s government became more aggressive, starting a war in Georgia in 2008 and illegally annexing the Ukrainian province of Crimea in 2014, Russian companies were able to grow their business in Europe. (Board positions at Russian energy companies have also offered a lucrative sinecure for retired European politicians, such as the former German chancellor, and Putin fanboy, Gerhard Schroeder.)

Since Russia unleashed its invasion of Ukraine, Germany has taken some welcome steps, including freezing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would have carried yet more Russian natural gas to Germany. Berlin said it would also build two new terminals to import gas from the United States or the Middle East by ship, which would be built in a way that could also handle hydrogen in the future. But Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also been one of the most vocal opponents of including Russian energy transactions in Western sanctions. And while Germany’s plan for replacing natural gas in power generation might answer the need to reduce reliance on Russia, it’s completely backward from an environmental standpoint: Berlin still plans to close down its carbon-free nuclear power plants while reactivating coal-powered plants, which are the most carbon-intensive form of electricity generation.

According to the International Energy Agency, keeping those reactors online would help the continent kick Russian fuel. If that’s too much for Germany to stomach, at the very minimum Berlin should drop its opposition to nuclear power elsewhere on the continent. Prior to the war in Ukraine, Germany opposed a European plan to categorize nuclear energy investments as green, and has been trying to prevent coal-dependent Poland from developing nuclear power. But if it wants to have any chance at breaking free of Russian energy, Europe can’t be held hostage to Germany’s nuclear taboos anymore. Germany has also come under well-deserved criticism for the laborious permitting process for a Tesla electric vehicle factory there, which is antithetical to the kind of quick steps away from gas-powered vehicles that the climate and Ukraine crises demand.

The United States has much less reliance on Russian fossil fuels, which made it feasible for President Biden to announce this week that he would ban all imports of Russian oil, gas, and coal. Helping NATO allies follow the American lead should be a national security priority. One way to do that is to export American natural gas to fill the void left by Russian gas. A more sustainable response would be to strengthen American production of the nonrenewable minerals and metals required for renewable energy, such as neodymium for offshore wind and cobalt for batteries, so that the West doesn’t become just as reliant on autocracies for clean energy as it is now for fossil fuels. The last two weeks have been a grim reminder that without energy security, we won’t just be at the mercy of foreign despots — we might also end up paying for their brutal wars.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.

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