What Putin’s war could mean for fossil fuels

How do you ensure energy security on a hotter planet? That’s the thorny new question that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presents to many countries, most immediately in Europe.
The leaders of the European Union are expected to announce a proposal next week that would “accelerate the clean energy transition and reduce permanently our dependence on imports of natural gas.” If it goes through, it could significantly blunt one of the Kremlin’s most formidable economic weapons: piped gas to heat and power the continent.
It also raises an uncomfortable question: Why did it take a full-blown attack on civilians to speed up climate action?
The 26-page E.U. draft proposal, seen by The New York Times, proposes to swiftly renovate old, leaky buildings to reduce energy demand, simplify regulations to attract investments in renewable energy, encourage more rooftop solar installations and produce more energy from biomass.
At the moment, Russia supplies nearly 40 percent, on average, of the gas that European countries use for heat and electricity. For some countries, like Germany, that reliance is even higher, and that gives President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia outsize leverage in his war against Ukraine. It also makes it very hard for Europe (and the United States) to impose sanctions on Russia’s fossil fuel industry, the country’s main moneymaker.
When I talk about gas, I mean what is generally referred to as natural gas, because, like coal, it is derived from nature. It would be more accurate to call it methane gas, because methane, a potent pollutant, is its main component.
In the near term, according to the draft E.U. energy strategy, Europe is not giving up on gas. The plan proposes to increase the storage of gas, and, in order to reduce its reliance on piped gas from Russia, it proposes to diversify to liquefied natural gas, also a fossil fuel.
The United States sends L.N.G. to Europe — a lot of it. So, any European transition away from Russian gas has major implications for American gas producers.
By the end of this year, the United States is expected to have the world’s largest export capacity for liquefied natural gas. The American oil and gas industry and its political champions have seized on the conflict in Ukraine to call for more production, as my colleague Hiroko Tabuchi wrote, though that would take years to come online and do very little to bring down energy prices.
If the major elements of the European proposal are carried out, Russia’s war in Ukraine could have a huge, albeit unwitting, consequence: It could hasten Europe’s transition away from fossil fuels.
“The developments in the energy markets over the last months have underscored the necessity to accelerate the clean energy transition and reduce permanently our dependence on imports of natural gas,” the draft document states. “Diversifying supplies, frontloading renewable energy and improving energy efficiency is the best insurance against price shocks.”
To reduce Europe’s reliance on Russia, lots of new infrastructure is being built to take in liquefied gas from the United States and elsewhere. In Europe, as my colleagues Liz Alderman and Stanley Reed told me recently, L.N.G. import terminals are already being expanded in Belgium and Poland; a new one was recently approved in Greece with European Union funding; Germany this week fast-tracked the construction of two new import terminals.
In the United States, my colleague Clifford Krauss noted, a new L.N.G. export facility is scheduled to start operating in Calcasieu Pass, La., this year; expansions are underway in two Texas export facilities; and an additional 10 export projects are under consideration. Nearly a quarter of American L.N.G. exports went to Europe in 2021. Over the last few months, Europe has been the top destination for U.S. exports.
So, could Europe survive without Russian gas next winter?
A recent analysis by Bruegel, a think tank based in Brussels, suggests it could, but not without reducing demand, changing regulations and spending a lot more money. Some Europeans seem to be taking action to protect themselves. Electric heat pumps, one of the most cost-effective ways to replace gas-fired boilers, spread swiftly in Europe for the first time in 2021, though nowhere as fast as is necessary, as Jan Rosenow, a director at the Regulatory Assistance Project, explained in a Twitter thread this week.
Britain, meanwhile, has said it intends to continue drilling in its part of the North Sea, but its secretary for business and energy, Kwasi Kwarteng, said this week that his country’s energy security would ultimately have to come from renewables, which in Britain includes nuclear power.
“It would be complete madness to turn off our domestic source of gas,” he said on Twitter. “But the long-term solution is obvious: Gas is more expensive than renewable energy, so we need to move away from gas.”
From inside Ukraine came a poignant plea to pivot.
“One of my hopes for the future reconstruction of Ukraine is that our government and our international partners will support only sustainable solutions and clean energy and don’t go back to the dependency on fossils,” a Ukrainian climate activist, Kostiantyn Krynytskyi, told me in an email.
His organization, Ecoaction, was among several Ukrainian groups, joined by environmental groups from elsewhere, that published an open letter to the world’s importers of Russian oil and gas, including the United States, to “ban any import of fossil fuels from Russia and rapidly phase out all fossil fuels.”