“Europe does not need to be this reliant on Russian gas. A look back at the last 20 years reveals a series of decisions — notably by Germany, but also by decision-makers across the continent — that created the present-day vulnerability. While some of these choices can’t be undone, Europe can still learn from history to reduce its vulnerability to energy-market manipulations driven by geopolitics. Just as the United States during the 1970s invested in emergency oil reserves to insulate itself from the effects of Middle Eastern oil embargoes, Europe should do the same with natural gas. The lesson of that era is that it’s not just the amount of energy supply that matters; countries also need to invest in resilient systems to fall back on when a crisis occurs.
What’s more, energy security doesn’t have to come at the price of climate goals. Contrary to what some commentators have suggested, this isn’t the time for Europe to revert back to its own fossil fuels. Instead, by continuing to invest in renewable energy while prioritizing a system that can withstand shocks, Europe can do both: keep phasing out fossil fuels and weaken Russia’s hold over its foreign policy.”
“Three critical decisions in recent years made Europe dependent on natural gas and, therefore, vulnerable to Russian machinations. The first was Germany’s momentous decision to phase out its nuclear reactors in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Eliminating nuclear energy, which does not emit greenhouse gases and has an impeccable safety record in Western Europe, put enormous pressure on the rest of Europe’s energy supplies. Had this choice not been made, Europe’s energy system — which includes the electrical grid but also other components, like the energy used to heat buildings and fuel transportation — would be less dependent on imported natural gas.
The second key set of decisions, by Germany and the EU, was to allow the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to be built. The natural gas pipeline, which connects Russia to Germany directly, is not yet operational, and the German foreign minister has explicitly threatened to block it if Russia invades Ukraine. Still, Scholz has yet to say the same, and Nord Stream 2 has some powerful backers, including former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who sits on the board of directors of multiple Russian oil and gas companies. Anticipating the pipeline’s completion, the rest of the German system has made investment and planning decisions that curtail the amount of other energy available.
Germany’s moves took place as the EU was trying to lower the cost of gas by increasing market competition. One tactic was to make it easier for global suppliers to compete by favoring “spot markets” with tradable contracts over long-term, fixed contracts. As intended, the policy lowered the average cost of energy in Europe. The unintended side effect, however, has been to make the natural gas system more fragile and vulnerable to manipulation.
The third key decision was a failure across Europe to invest sufficiently in natural gas storage and pipeline interconnections that could serve as a buffer in the event of an emergency. Storage tanks and pipelines can hold reserve energy to make up for a shortage, while pipeline interconnections can resolve shortages in some parts of the system by temporarily flowing natural gas from others. Both are expensive to build and maintain, though. True, some real progress has been made increase interconnections, as energy expert Andreas Goldthau points out. But the system remains vulnerable in case of emergency: In mid-December, Europe had roughly 690 terawatt-hours of gas stored, but one analysis suggested that under certain conditions such as an extreme winter, it could need more than twice that amount. (Fortunately, this winter has been relatively mild so far.)”
“It is true that the gradual transition from fossil fuels to wind and solar creates more demand for “bridge fuels” like natural gas or nuclear power. But energy security is not at odds with climate ambitions, so long as a country invests in sufficient emergency supply capacity to ride out potential market manipulations like Russia’s.
How do we know that gas vulnerability could be solved this way? Because the same thing happened with oil in the 1970s. Then, the West was vulnerable to oil embargoes, just as Europe’s gas supply is vulnerable now. Before 1973, oil-exporting petrostates regularly used embargoes or boycotts to try to coerce target countries to make geopolitical concessions, with varying degrees of success, as I discuss in my book Partial Hegemony. But after the massive disruptions of the 1973 oil crisis, the United States and Western oil consumers got serious about oil storage. The United States created the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which still exists — in fact, the Biden administration released oil from these reserves to ease an energy crunch in the fall. Japan, Germany and the other members of the International Energy Agency (IEA) also created oil reserves in the 1970s and agreed to coordinate with the United States on how to use them. The effects were dramatic: Petrostates immediately stopped trying to enact embargoes, and major oil consumers have not faced import shortages ever since.”