Why is Europe reluctant to ban Russian energy imports during the war in Ukraine?

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World leaders signal on Monday that more sanctions must be imposed on Russia following the massacre in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, but when it comes to targeting one of Moscow’s biggest exports – oil and natural gas – European countries are reluctant due to their dependence on Russian energy.

European importers pay $850 million for these supplies every day, according to the Associated Press. So far, Western sanctions have targeted Russian banks and companies, but spared oil and gas payments.

RUSSIA INVADES UKRAINE: LIVE UPDATES

As international outcry grows over alleged Russian military atrocities in Ukraine, here’s why Europe is reluctant to dramatically raise the economic stakes against the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin — and if it can:

Steam leaves a cooling tower at the Lichterfelde gas-fired power station in Berlin, Germany last Wednesday.
(AP/Michael Sohn)

WHAT ENERGY SUPPLY IS AT ISSUE?

Europe gets 40% of its natural gas from Russia, which is used to heat homes, generate electricity and supply industry with both power and a key raw material for products such as fertilizer.

For petroleum, it’s about 25%, most of which goes to gasoline and diesel for vehicles. Russia supplies about 14% of diesel, according to S&P Global analysts, and a cut could send already high fuel prices for trucks and tractors skyrocketing.

WHY CAN’T EUROPE CUT RUSSIAN ENERGY LIKE THE US HAS DONE?

The United States has imported little oil and no natural gas from Russia as it has become a major oil and gas producer and exporter due to fracking. Europe had some oil and gas deposits, but production declined, leaving the 27 countries of the European Union dependent on imports to fuel its advanced industrial economy.

Of the 155 billion cubic meters of gas that Europe imports from Russia each year, 140 billion passes through gas pipelines crossing Ukraine, Poland and under the Baltic Sea. Europe is scrambling to secure additional supplies by ship in the form of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, but that still cannot fully offset the loss of Russian gas by pipeline.

LNG is also much more expensive and suppliers are exhausted. And while some European countries are well connected to LNG terminals, such as Spain, and new projects are underway or soon to open in places like Greece and Poland, there is no infrastructure to getting these supplies to high demand locations. dependent on gas, from Germany to Eastern European countries. Building new LNG import terminals and pipelines to connect gas to the places that need it most can take years.

A car stops at a gas station where prices can reach $3.04 a liter in Marseille, southern France, on March 9.

A car stops at a gas station where prices can reach $3.04 a liter in Marseille, southern France, on March 9.

Because dependence on Russia varies, agreement on an EU boycott is harder to come by. Lithuania said it stopped imports of Russian gas after the construction of an LNG import terminal launched in 2014, and Poland, which has spent years looking for alternatives, said it does not. would not renew a Russian gas contract at the end of this year in addition to taking steps to ban Russian coal and oil.

Germany, the continent’s largest economy, still gets 40% of its gas from Russia, even after reducing its dependence. It aims to end Russian coal imports this summer, oil imports by the end of the year and be largely gas-independent by 2024, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck has said. .

WHERE COULD EUROPE GET ENERGY IF NOT FROM RUSSIA?

Europe is working to phase out Russian gas as quickly as possible over the next few years by finding new sources, conserving and accelerating wind and solar power. The EU’s plan is to reduce the use of Russian gas by two-thirds by this year and come out well before 2030.

In addition to getting LNG from places like the United States and Qatar, Europe is pushing for more gas from non-Russian pipelines from Norway and Algeria.

Oil is different in that it comes mainly by ship. Still, it would not be easy to replace Russian supply with tight global markets. Removing the more than 2 million barrels a day from Russia to Europe from the market would drive up oil prices around the world. And Russia might try to sell the oil to India and China, although it might earn less.

WHAT IF EUROPE BANS RUSSIAN ENERGY?

Estimates vary, but a threshold implies a blow to the economy. Oxford Economics estimates that a six-month Russian gas cut would reduce the economic output of the 19 countries that use the euro by 1.5%.

Operators work at the Enagas regasification plant, Europe's largest LNG plant, in Barcelona, ​​Spain, March 29.

Operators work at the Enagas regasification plant, Europe’s largest LNG plant, in Barcelona, ​​Spain, March 29.

A ban could mean governments would have to ration gas between businesses to protect homes and hospitals. Manufacturers of metals, fertilizers, chemicals and glass would be hard hit. Even a partial cut in gas supplies to industry could cost “hundreds of thousands” of jobs, said Michael Vassiliadis, head of Germany’s BCE union representing workers in the chemical and mining industries.

“We will likely continue to see resistance from Germany and a few others, as they are just much more dependent on Russian imports of oil, gas and coal,” said UK senior market analyst Craig Erlam. United, Europe, the Middle East and Africa at currency broker Oanda. “Predictions for the impact of an embargo vary, but it would almost certainly tip the country into recession.”

However, a group of economists, including Professor Ruediger Bachmann of the University of Notre Dame, say an embargo would keep economic costs to Germany below 3% of output, likely closer to 2% . Although “these are substantial economic costs”, the economists said, they are “clearly manageable in the sense that the German economy has withstood deeper crises in recent years and recovered rapidly” – following of the 2009 global financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

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“Public alarmism about the catastrophic consequences of an energy embargo from affiliated lobby groups and think tanks does not meet academic standards,” they said in a report on the Politics website. from the Center for Economic Policy Research.

WHAT COULD EUROPE DO OTHER THAN A CUTOFF?

Economists Simone Tagliapietra and Guntram Wolff of the Bruegel think tank in Brussels are proposing an EU import tariff on Russian oil and gas. This would reduce Russia’s revenue while avoiding a blow to Europe’s growth, with the legal benefit of leaving contracts intact. Last week, European leaders insisted that those same contracts shielded them from Russia’s demand to pay for the gas in roubles. The tariff money could be used to protect vulnerable households against rising energy prices.

While the army that invaded Ukraine is already paid, the tariff would put the Kremlin in “a more difficult economic position, in which it could eventually begin to have difficulty buying things from the outside world, including armaments , and to pay the salaries of the public”. sector,” Tagliapietra said. “All of this will happen in months, but may have significant effects on the sustainability of Russian domestic politics.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.