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Europe: Weaning itself off Russian energy

Russia's invasion of Crimea has accelerated European efforts to cultivate new sources of energy.

Last updated: 29 May 2014 06:36
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EU countries like Estonia are trying to diversify their energy sources [AFP/Getty Images]

Washington, DC - The G7 recently met in Rome to discuss the challenges of energy security following Russia's invasion of the Crimean peninsula, and reaffirmed its commitment to pursuing collective energy security.

"Energy should not be used as a means of political coercion nor as a threat to security," the seven countries stated, calling for the development of competitive energy markets, an increase in alternative energy production, and additional investment in research to reduce reliance on Russian energy.

The plan calls for solutions over the short, middle and long terms, including emergency relief measures during the coming winter. For smaller eastern European countries, however, the threats loom larger than for their western counterparts. The Baltic countries are almost entirely dependent on Russia for their energy supply, and are vulnerable in a way that larger countries with more diversified energy supplies and more established economies are not. 

"The energy dominance, or the monopoly, of Russia is always a danger," Latvian Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma told Al Jazeera. "We know from a technological point of view our energy issues have to be solved. We can't do it tomorrow or overnight. Finding a new energy supply hasn't been our top priority before. But it has become apparent that we have to solve the problem before 2017."

Straujuma's priority is the construction of a pipeline in Latvia that would connect the Baltic countries with the western grid, through Germany and Poland. She's also calling for the construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal large enough to store supplies through the summer, and supply the Baltics and Poland throughout the winter. With 52 percent of its landmass forested, Latvia also uses biomass, wood-chip and pellet-based heating systems. 

The EU ... [has] been attempting to wean themselves off Russian supplies, and now that the need has arrived, Europe is more or less ready for it.

- John Zindar, partner at the European-American Business Organization

While the EU might not have been able to anticipate Russia's invasion of Crimea, it has nonetheless been gradually preparing for increased energy security over the past several years. The 2020 Climate and Energy Package, released in January, called for an increase in efficiency and production of renewable resources. The plan established in Rome reiterated those principles, including diversifying energy sources, ensuring supplies are not interrupted by geopolitical events, and introducing emergency response systems in the event of a major disruption.

"For years the EU collectively, and the member states individually, have been attempting to wean themselves off Russian supplies, and now that the need has arrived, Europe is more or less ready for it," said John Zindar, a partner at the European-American Business Organization and professor at New York University's Center for Global Affairs.  

The issue of energy security might not be solved at the EU level, Zindar said, but rather by the member states themselves, which each have energy resources particular to their region: British oil; French nuclear power; Spanish wind and solar energy; Estonian oil shale. "Individually and regionally, the member states have all the potential to solve the energy issues of Europe once and for all," Zindar said. 

However, with increased calls for alternative energy supplies come renewed concerns about the environmental impact of more controversial sources. Croatia, the EU's newest member state, recently opened its first round of licensing for off-shore drilling on the country's famed Adriatic coast.

"Energy policy has always been a divisive topic between industry and climate advocates,Croatian President Ivo Josipovic told Al Jazeera. "Although current economic woes in the EU might make renewable energy less of a priority for some members, the share of renewable energy sources within the EU will continue to grow. Economic viability is the priority." 

That pull between economic viability and environmental sustainability is a familiar one, and one that Europe will most likely never fully resolve. "That tension - between economic empowerment and environmental conservation - will always exist in Europe, because they have a very strong environmental movement with political power," Zindar said. "There's always going to be that tension of the real strong political pull of the environmental political parties and the economically practical people who say yes, we need to start mining coal again, or fracking, or do anything we have to remove Russia from our geopolitical decision-making."

But Josipovic said that even with new energy markets and increased production in Europe, Russia will remain a partner, for better or worse. "Europe and Russia are dependent on each other, and will continue to depend on each other in the energy sector," Josipovic said, "and both Europe and Russia are aware of this interdependency".

It's a sentiment echoed by leaders from Hungary and Poland, who have called for the creation of an "energy union" to negotiate prices with Russia and other countries as a bloc. 

Whether the EU can ever fully sever its energy ties with Russia, or should, remains to be seen. But it is moving forward with new and renewed relationships in North Africa and the Middle East - and is also trying to boost its own production and implement policies focused on the long-term energy security of its member states.

"It is important that the momentum behind investing and improving energy security in central and eastern Europe is not lost once the crisis in Ukraine begins to capture fewer headlines," Josipovic said. "It must be sustained and understood as a long-term strategic process that takes years and decades rather than a short-term response to a current event."

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Al Jazeera
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