07 December 2011
EU energy policy is driven by the threat that Russia could turn off the gas tap once again, though fear can have positive side-effects
If the European Union hits its 2020 renewable energy targets - as now seems likely - it will in large part be thanks to Russia. By switching off its neighbour's gas supplies on more than one occasion between 2006 and 2009, Moscow inadvertently injected adrenaline into the arms of energy policy-makers across the continent. The dispute with Ukraine had immediate consequences in central and Eastern Europe, where households were left in the cold when their supplies - which passed through Ukraine - were also affected. But just as important, it hammered home the extent to which the entire continent was dependent on imported Russian energy.
Over the last five years, there has been a rush to reduce this dependence. National governments have piled money into subsidy schemes for renewable energies. Solar-thermal power, photovoltaic power and wind power have boomed. The EU target - that 20 per cent of all energy should come from renewables by 2020 - is already within reach. "It could well be that we will exceed this target," says EU energy policy adviser for Greenpeace Frauke Thies. Some member states have "explicitly stated" that energy security was a top priority, Thies tells PublicServiceEurope.com. The Russian gas crisis has, in some ways, had a positive effect on EU energy policy - she claims.
Member states have accelerated plans to diversify energy imports. In Poland, construction has started on a liquefied natural gas import terminal - capable of handling ships from the Middle East or further afield. Lithuania is planning a similar terminal. "Energy security, and independence from Russia, is the main reason these terminal are being built," says director of the Baltic Energy Forum - a non-governmental organisation - Jörg Sträussler. In landlocked countries such as Austria, there has been an explosion in demand for all types of "passive house" technology capable of reducing household energy consumption. Again, energy security is one of the key driving factors for consumers.
The European Commission, meanwhile, has been promoting gas pipelines with countries such as Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. The Caspian pipeline will "bring new sources of gas to Europe", claims European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger. The commission let it be known the pipeline was designed to "increase security of supply for European households and industry by diversifying gas sources and routes, therefore minimising dependence on few suppliers and potential gas cuts". By using energy as a bargaining chip, Russia showed itself to be an unreliable trading partner. In retrospect this was a faux-pas in commercial terms, though losses have possibly been mitigated by investments in Europe made by Russian giants such as Gazprom.
The lack of trust has also had a knock-on effect outside of the energy sector. According to reports circulating in Brussels, Moscow applied to host the international exchange of the long range identification and tracking system, an anti-terrorist tool used for tracking the movements of merchant ships. Russia's application, according to one source, was politely turned down because "the Russians turn things off if they are not happy".
On one hand, little has changed on the continent's energy scene. Despite the best efforts of policy-makers, Europe still depends on imports for 80 per cent of all oil and more than 60 per cent of all gas. If the Russians turned off the taps this winter, EU citizens would freeze once again. On the other hand, the dash for energy security triggered by the Russian gas tantrum is a good example of the unintended consequences - some of them positive - brought about by ill-considered political decisions. Russia's beef was with Ukraine, not Europe, but it was the EU that took fright.