We Must Free Ourselves Of Putin's Gas

03/22/2014 09:41 am ET | Updated Nov 26, 2014
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Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk observed before Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to Warsaw last Wednesday that Germany's dependence on Russian gas is endangering Europe's political sovereignty. He called for less transformation of our energy sector and less environmental protection -- thereby backing coal and nuclear energy. Tusk was right in his appraisal. He was wrong in his conclusion.

It's not just Germany that is dependent. All of Europe is reliant on imported fossil fuels. Not only from Russia. Each year, Europe imports a half trillion euros' worth of coal, oil, gas and uranium. Eighty-four percent of the European Union's oil needs are met with oil extracted outside of its borders. That's true for 100 percent of its uranium, 20 percent of which comes from Russia. For natural gas, the imported share is 45 percent.

Germany pays more than 90 billion euro a year for its imports. We get from Russia more than 20 percent of our black coal, 34 percent of our crude oil and 31 percent of our natural gas. Germans annually pay 33 billion euros into the pockets of Russian oligarchs.

If Europe wants to incrementally ratchet up its sanctions against Russia after the annexation of Crimea, then its methods are limited. Admittedly, Moscow's stock market has fallen and Russia's economic reputation has been clearly damaged. Russia stands to lose more over the long-run in such a conflict than the EU. For the short-term, economic sanctions don't strike at the economic footing of the country's ruling class. Their SUVs, of course, will get more expensive. But the source of their money and power remains in oil and gas exports.

Economic sanctions in the energy sector lack both credibility and effectiveness. German crude oil reserves would only last 59 days. Reserves of natural gas, depending on weather conditions, would last 75 to 80 days -- and they lie partly in underground caverns that belong to Gazprom. We could most easily cope with a loss of coal deliveries. To an extent, though, cutting imports wouldn't stop the payments because there are long-term delivery contracts or provisions that were financed ahead of time.

And so, the Crimean crisis has revealed the dilemma of Europe's foreign energy policy: Russia is, at least for the medium term, the backbone of energy supply. There are such strong mutual dependencies that neither side can easily get out of it. That would bring massive economic drawbacks to both sides. The situation does have a conflict-limiting function. But its lopsidedness is undesirable.

If Europe would reduce its dependence on imported energy, it could simultaneously free up its possible actions abroad. Which means: Whoever wants more political sovereignty for Europe must push for more transformation of our energy sector, more environmental protection. A systematic energy transformation boosts our political sovereignty.

Diversifying our supply sources, as EU energy commissioner Günther Oettinger is calling for, would only spread the risks. It wouldn't reduce them. Germany hasn't yet managed to build an authorized liquid-gas terminal in Wilhelmshaven. And the gas that's expected there would come from Qatar, a country that has recently fallen out with Saudi Arabia because of its support of worldwide jihad.

Dependence remains dependence, either on importing countries or on limited resources -- even on growing demand, and on thoroughly autocratic and therefore unstable systems. But Polish Prime Minister Tusk wants to diversify not only supplier countries, but also diversify fuels. From gas and oil to coal and uranium. Half of the latter comes to Germany from Russia.

Energy independence is important to Germans. Nearly 75 percent of our citizens aspire to it. At that level, it's an even higher priority than phasing out nuclear energy, which 69 percent of Germans approve of. You can only achieve energy independence by reducing imports, by increasing the mix of renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy conservation.

Germany's energy transformation is an example of a win for both independence and sovereignty. The rapid expansion of renewable energy saves us not just about 150 million tons of greenhouse gases each year. It also reduces the need for annual imports worth about 10 billion euros. Such money has an added value for Germany -- it neither strengthens Putin nor Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. If we implement our environmental protection and renewable-energy goals ambitiously, we could save another 50 billion euros by 2020. That's half our current import account.

Our problem with Russia is not with electricity. The argument that -- by developing highly efficient gas-fired power plants as a reserve against fluctuations, we increase our dependency -- isn't true on paper. Actually, the share of gas in our electricity mix today is only 10 percent, and it's falling. Gas-fired power plants are being taken out of service one after the other. In Germany, there's actually an excess supply of electricity, fueled by outdated brown-coal power plants.

The energy transformation has until now just been an electricity transformation. The heating sector has been left out. More than 90 percent of the gas burned here is used for providing heat. Whoever wants to be independent of Russian gas must finally adopt an ambitious program for renovating buildings and set up an energy-savings fund for investments in industry. And whoever wants to reduce our oil imports -- he or she can't block ambitious car-emission limits like Chancellor Merkel did in Brussels in service of BMW. He must reduce emissions for the whole fleet of automobiles more rapidly and start backing the use of electric-powered vehicles.

Energy self-sufficiency in a globalized economy is an illusion. It's also not desirable in terms of security policy. But one-sided dependencies should be avoided. Therefore, we must conserve energy, we must use it more efficiently, and we must generate it more from renewable sources -- in other words, domestically.

This doesn't just go for Germany. We need ambitious environmental protection goals, renewable energy expansion goals, and energy efficiency goals for the European Union -- supported by binding goals for each and every member state. Yet the European Commission, the European Council, Germany and above all Poland refuse that.

That's why this is a question of European sovereignty. If Europe wants a freer hand, then we have to reduce our dependency on imported fossil fuels. That will only succeed with more renewable energies and more environmental protection.

This article appeared on March 16, 2014 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sunday Newspaper.