NEWS One way to combat Russia? Move faster on clean energy

Sammy Roth — Feb­ru­ary 26, 2022 - Los Ange­les Times


The sun sets behind an off­shore wind farm in the Irish Sea off the coast of England.
(Paul Ellis /​ AFP/​Getty Images)

Direct link:–02-26/one-way-to-combat-russia-move-faster-on-clean-energy


When a geopo­lit­i­cal cri­sis sent gaso­line prices sky­rock­et­ing four decades ago, Pres­i­dent Carter called on Amer­i­cans to achieve “energy inde­pen­dence” from Mid­dle East­ern oil exporters. He installed solar pan­els on the White House, donned a cardi­gan sweater to stay warm and took steps to boost domes­tic oil production.

Russia’s inva­sion of Ukraine has again upended global energy sup­plies, threat­en­ing to raise gas prices that are already higher than ever in Cal­i­for­nia. The U.S. oil indus­try wants Pres­i­dent Biden to ease restric­tions on drilling, and Europe has already started import­ing more fos­sil fuel from the United States to reduce its depen­dence on Russ­ian supplies.

But dou­bling down on oil and nat­ural gas isn’t the answer, some secu­rity experts say — and nei­ther is energy independence.

The war in Europe adds to the urgency of tran­si­tion­ing to clean energy sources such as solar and wind power that are harder for bad actors such as Rus­sia to dis­rupt, those experts say. The con­flict also high­lights the impor­tance of the U.S., the Euro­pean Union and other allies work­ing together to con­front the cli­mate cri­sis while tak­ing global secu­rity into account.

There’s been a lot of con­cern about depen­dence on Russ­ian [nat­ural] gas, and whether that inhibits coun­tries’ abil­ity to stand up to Rus­sia,” said Erin Siko­rsky, direc­tor of the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based Cen­ter for Cli­mate and Secu­rity. “The more that coun­tries can wean them­selves off oil and gas and move toward renew­ables, the more inde­pen­dence they have in terms of action.”

It’s also impor­tant to remem­ber that cli­mate change poses a major national secu­rity threat, with the Defense Depart­ment and other fed­eral offi­cials warn­ing last year that wors­en­ing climate-​​fueled haz­ards are likely to drive a surge in global migra­tion, stok­ing polit­i­cal insta­bil­ity. That helps explain why the U.S. Army released its first-​​ever cli­mate strat­egy this month, set­ting a goal of slash­ing its planet-​​warming emis­sions in half and pow­er­ing all bases with climate-​​friendly elec­tric­ity by 2030.

Siko­rsky pointed out that Defense Sec­re­tary Lloyd J. Austin III has called China the “pac­ing threat” for the U.S., mean­ing it poses greater sys­temic chal­lenges than any other nation. The cli­mate emer­gency, Siko­rsky said, is America’s “shap­ing threat.”

It is shap­ing every­thing in the back­ground now that the United States is deal­ing with,” she said.

Even before Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin launched his attack on Ukraine this week, Euro­pean nations were mak­ing plans to cut their reliance on energy exports from Rus­sia. The coun­try sup­plies more than one-​​quarter of Europe’s oil and nearly 40% of its nat­ural gas, a dif­fer­ent planet-​​warming fuel used for heat­ing and elec­tric­ity generation.

But Russ­ian aggres­sion has sped up the E.U.’s plans. Euro­pean offi­cials are expected to release a strat­egy next week for reduc­ing the continent’s use of fos­sil fuels by 40% over eight years, and ramp­ing up non-​​polluting energy sources.

It’s a plan designed to slow the cli­mate cri­sis, which is wreak­ing havoc around the world by exac­er­bat­ing wild­fires, floods, droughts and heat waves. But cut­ting back on fos­sil fuels would also help to limit Russia’s geopo­lit­i­cal influence.image

Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in Decem­ber. (Alexei Nikol­sky /​ Asso­ci­ated Press)

UC Berke­ley energy pro­fes­sor Daniel Kam­men — who pre­vi­ously served as sci­ence envoy for then-​​Secretary of State John F. Kerry — lamented that Europe “has clearly needed higher moti­va­tions than cli­mate change to cut the Gor­dian gas knot with Rus­sia.” But if Russia’s inva­sion of Ukraine pushes the E.U. to act, he said, it could be a sil­ver lin­ing to an oth­er­wise tragic situation.

For all we talk about how inex­pen­sive renew­ables are, and how quickly energy stor­age is com­ing down in price, that hasn’t been enough when it appears that ‘just’ the cli­mate is at stake,” Kam­men said. “Now Euro­pean sov­er­eignty is at stake.”

Still, there’s no guar­an­tee Europe will fol­low through on its lat­est cli­mate com­mit­ments. Even if the geopo­lit­i­cal cri­sis under­scores the ben­e­fits of shift­ing to renew­able energy, it could also dis­tract global lead­ers from the longer-​​term cli­mate crisis.

And in the mean­time, one of Europe’s strate­gies for deal­ing with con­strained Russ­ian gas sup­plies and ris­ing prices dur­ing the last few months has been import­ing more liq­ue­fied nat­ural gas from the United States. It’s an option made pos­si­ble by frack­ing, which opened up “shale plays” in regions such as west Texas and made Amer­ica the world’s largest oil and nat­ural gas producer.

Putin hates U.S. shale because of the influ­ence it gives the U.S. and the world, and the flex­i­bil­ity it gives us,” said Daniel Yer­gin, a Pulitzer Prize-​​winning oil his­to­rian and vice chair of research and con­sult­ing firm IHS Markit.

The Amer­i­can Petro­leum Insti­tute — a fos­sil fuel indus­try trade group known as API — has urged Biden to respond to the Ukraine cri­sis by allow­ing more oil and gas drilling on fed­eral lands and approv­ing new facil­i­ties to export liq­ue­fied nat­ural gas.

Twenty-​​seven Repub­li­can sen­a­tors made a sim­i­lar demand in a let­ter to Energy Sec­re­tary Jen­nifer Granholm last week, call­ing U.S gas exports “a depend­able source of energy and a reli­able alter­na­tive to strate­gic com­peti­tors like Russia.”

But those steps would carry long-​​term cli­mate con­se­quences,spew­ing more heat-​​trapping pol­lu­tion into that atmos­phere. They’re also unlikely to result in new energy sup­plies com­ing online quickly enough to make a mean­ing­ful dif­fer­ence in Europe.

API’s answer for all of the world’s prob­lems is to remove con­straints on domes­tic oil and gas pro­duc­tion,” said David Vic­tor, an inter­na­tional rela­tions pro­fes­sor at UC San Diego. “It’s just a very well-​​rehearsed argument.”

Rendering of the proposed liquefied natural gas expansion at the Energia Costa Azul facility near Ensenada, Mexico. The plant is operated by IEnova, a Mexico-based energy company and a subsidiary of San Diego's Sempra Energy.

And if Europe fol­lows through on com­mit­ments to ratchet down fos­sil fuel com­bus­tion — per­haps by invest­ing in green hydro­gen or long-​​duration bat­ter­ies — the U.S. could also reap the ben­e­fits, Vic­tor said. That’s because Cal­i­for­nia and other states, like Europe, have a grow­ing need for clean power sources that can keep the lights on when the sun isn’t shin­ing and the wind isn’t blow­ing. Euro­pean invest­ments to scale up those early-​​stage tech­nolo­gies could help drive down costs for everyone.

The tech­nolo­gies that are going to be used — whether it’s elec­trolyz­ers for hydro­gen or fuel cells that use hydro­gen for heavy trucks — these are all global,” Vic­tor said. “Those economies [of scale] are just mas­sive. That’s how solar got cheap.”

Westlands Solar Park in California's San Joaquin Valley.

West­lands Solar Park in California’s San Joaquin Valley.(Carolyn Cole /​ Los Ange­les Times)

Calls for energy inde­pen­dence, Vic­tor added, “often end up back­fir­ing, because we ben­e­fit from a global tech­nol­ogy marketplace.”

At the same time, bulk­ing up domes­tic sup­ply chains could help the U.S. shield itself against price swings and geopo­lit­i­cal con­flict — par­tic­u­larly when it comes to lithium and other min­er­als needed for clean energy tech­nolo­gies such as batteries.

Just this week, Biden joined with Gov. Gavin New­som to announce a $35-​​million con­tract with a Las Vegas com­pany that oper­ates the nation’s only rare-​​earth mine in the Cal­i­for­nia desert. Biden and New­som also dis­cussed fed­eral sup­port for lithium pro­duc­tion at the Salton Sea, in South­ern California’s Impe­r­ial Val­ley, which has been described as the “Saudi Ara­bia of lithium.”

Boost­ing domes­tic pro­duc­tion of crit­i­cal min­er­als could help com­bat Russ­ian influ­ence, since Rus­sia is a lead­ing pro­ducer of met­als includ­ing cop­per and nickel — a reminder that even the clean-​​energy econ­omy isn’t immune from bad actors.

At the same time, the idea of energy inde­pen­dence is “some­what dan­ger­ous, because it offers you a false sense of secu­rity,” said Sarah Ladis­law, a man­ag­ing direc­tor at the think tank RMI. The real­ity, she said, is that the U.S. will need to find ways to work with Rus­sia and other nations to slash cli­mate pol­lu­tion, even as it strives to diver­sify its own clean energy supplies.

You have to be sen­si­tive to your energy vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and have con­tin­gency plans in place,” said Ladis­law, who pre­vi­ously led the energy secu­rity and cli­mate change pro­gram at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and Inter­na­tional Studies.




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