How Vladimir Putin uses natural gas to exert Russian influence and punish his enemies


Pipes for Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline are loaded onto a ship at a German port, June 1, 2021.
Stefan Sauer/picture alliance via Getty Images

Lena Surzhko Harned, Penn StateThe recent U.S.-Russia summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin suggests that a controversial Russian natural gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, is a done deal.

If completed as planned by the end of this year, Nord Stream 2 will convey 55 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea and thence to the rest of Europe. It is expected to bring US$3.2 billion to Russia annually.

Construction had been halted for over a year by U.S. sanctions passed in 2019 on the pipeline’s construction and financing. Sanctions were later expanded in 2020. Some Russia experts expected those sanctions to be a bargaining chip for Biden at the recent Geneva summit to pressure Putin over Russian occupation of territories in Ukraine and Georgia; support for Belarus’ dictatorial regime; violation of human rights within Russia; and the poisoning, jailing and outlawing of political opposition.

Instead, a month before the summit, the White House lifted sanctions on Nord Stream 2, dismaying some U.S. legislators and U.S. partners in Europe.

The pipeline project is a joint venture between a handful of European gas companies and Russian giant Gazprom, a majority state-owned company that is the largest gas supplier in the world. For Putin, the pipeline is an opportunity to increase his influence in Europe by deepening the region’s dependence on Russian energy.

Natural gas has been the bedrock of Putin’s power both domestically and internationally for decades. Nord Stream 2 gives the Russian leader a new direct and powerful line of control in Western Europe.

Vladimir Putin (left) and Joe Biden (right) stand in front of a door. Putin is facing the camera with a neutral expression. Biden is turned slightly to the left to look at Putin.
Biden and Putin had a tense if cordial meeting in Geneva.
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images News via Getty Images

How Putin controls Russian oil

Since taking office in 2000, Putin began seizing control of the Russian gas and oil industry. He renationalized Gazprom, the state oil company that had been privatized after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Scholarly research has demonstrated that regaining government control over the gas and oil industry contributed to consolidation of authoritarianism in Russia. And it coincided with crackdowns on Putin’s political opposition.

In 2003 Mikhail Khodorkovsky, owner of the Yukos oil company and a vocal critic of Putin’s growing authoritarianism, became the regime’s first famous political prisoner, after he was arrested at gunpoint and imprisoned for 10 years for tax evasion. Yukos was eventually seized by the government and absorbed into the state-owned companies.

By the end of his first term in office in 2004, Putin’s government had significant control over oil and gas production in Russia, which is the one of largest producers and exporters in the world. Proceeds collected from oil and gas sales allowed Putin to pay for his domestic agenda and boost military spending. It also gave him extraordinary leverage over neighboring countries that relied on Russia for their energy needs.

For example, in 2006 and 2009, when the Ukrainian government adopted more pro-Western policies and upset the Kremlin, Russia outright shut off the country’s gas supply – and by extension, shut off the gas of countries down the supply line in Central and Western Europe, including Germany.

Russia versus Europe

As a direct line of supply from Russia to Europe, Nord Stream 2 could avoid such problems for Western Europe in the future. But it also opens Western Europe to the same kind of direct Russian pressure it has used to punish Ukraine. So the proposed pipeline has been divisive.

Nord Stream 2 has already produced a rift between NATO allies, even before its completion.

Sweden, Poland and the Baltic countries, for example, have all raised concerns, citing environmental problems related to construction and maintenance of the pipeline. They worry that Russia will use its new pipeline infrastructure to increase its military naval presence in the Baltic Sea. That would increase Russia’s intelligence-gathering capacity.

Further “crumbling NATO,” as Putin puts it – sowing divisions in the alliance – would be a win for his regime.

The Russian leader sees NATO, which he calls a Cold War relic, as the greatest threat to Russian security. Disunity in Europe allows Russia to continue pursuing political repression of its own citizens and territorial aggression against neighboring nations with less foreign interference.

Ukraine’s dilemma

For Ukraine, Nord Stream 2 presents both a security and financial threat.

Ukraine largely stopped buying gas from Russia in 2015 following Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and support for a still-deadly Russian-sponsored separatist war in Donbas, in eastern Ukraine.

Russian military vehicles lined up on the road for military drills.
A Russian military drill in April 2021 in Crimea, a former territory of Ukraine that was annexed by Russia in 2014.
AP Photo/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service

However, Ukraine still collects up to US$3 billion in annual fees because Russian gas currently runs through a pipeline in Ukrainian territory to get to Europe.

Nord Stream 2 will deprive Ukraine of this income. According to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, the money lost in gas transit fees will mean Ukraine will have “nothing to pay for the Ukrainian army” to defend Ukraine from further Russian aggression.

In April 2021, observers documented a build-up of Russian military at Ukraine’s border with Russia, as well as in the waters of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The Russian military pulled back after a few weeks, but there is evidence that some 80,000 Russian troops remain near Ukraine, along with military equipment, including trucks and armored vehicles.

Zelensky says the pipeline has become a “real weapon” against Ukraine. In Kyiv, fears are that once Russia stops relying on Ukraine for transit to Europe, Putin will begin to exert more pressure on the Ukrainian government over the warring Donbas region or resume military aggression.

The risk may not be worth the reward of cheaper gas prices for European consumers. The economic boost that Russia will likely receive from capturing the European gas market will further enrich Putin’s kleptocratic regime – and, history shows, finance his undemocratic projects in Eastern Europe and beyond.

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Lena Surzhko Harned, Assistant Teaching Professor of Political Science, Penn State

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Scott Morrison’s gas transition plan is a dangerous road to nowhere



Flickr

Tim Baxter, University of Melbourne

As Australia continues to battle horrific bushfires, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced a renewed focus on gas-fired electricity to reduce emissions and lower energy prices. This is a dangerous and completely unnecessary route.

In a speech to the National Press Club last week, Morrison claimed:

There is no credible energy transition plan, for an economy like Australia in particular, that does not involve the greater use of gas as an important transition fuel.

This statement is completely untrue, even among the “official” transition plans.

The Australian Energy Market Operator’s draft Integrated System Plan, used to plan future infrastructure needs in Australia’s largest grid, contains multiple scenarios for the coming decades. Several of these, including the “central” scenario – representing entirely neutral assumptions about the future – see no substantial increase in gas consumption over the coming decades.

But with Morrison now pursuing bilateral agreements with the states to open up more gas reserves, it is vitally important to interrogate the logic of gas as a transition fuel.

The strong case against gas

Gas is, of course, a fossil fuel and a source of greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions occur during extraction and transport as well as when it is burned to produce energy.

Nonetheless, since the 1990s it has been touted as a “transition fuel” – that is as a resource that might be drawn upon temporarily while the world switches from coal-fired power to renewables.

Proponents say gas is less emissions-intensive than coal and as such, offers a better fossil fuel alternative as renewables are constructed and energy-efficiency improvements are implemented. (This benefit is overstated: more on this later.)




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But in the 30-odd years since gas was first talked up as a transition fuel, humans have added more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than they did in all of human history before that point. We are twice as far from stable global temperatures now as we were when the the concept of a transition fuel was born, and emissions are accelerating in the wrong direction.

Last year a consortium of major international organisations including the United Nations Environment Programme released a landmark report which showed planned global production of coal, oil and gas would see the world far exceed the Paris Agreement targets. There is no room for further expansion.

Australia: a vulnerable nation

2019 was the hottest and driest year ever recorded. We reeled from crippling drought and fires worse than our most terrifying nightmares. Then came the suffocating air pollution.

The Bureau of Meteorology explicitly linked this fire season to climate change.

The world has warmed by 1.1℃ since the industrial revolution due to the burning of coal, oil and gas. Current fossil fuel developments are enough to double that temperature increase.

Australia has among the world’s highest greenhouse gas emissions per person, despite also being among the most vulnerable to climate change.

Alongside this, Australia has long been the world’s largest coal exporter and last year took the crown as the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas.

Scott Morrison’s plan for a gas transition is a dangerous route.
AAP

Overstated benefits

It is true that gas, if produced and consumed in Australia without being liquefied, is 30-50% more carbon-efficient than coal at the point it is burned to produce electricity. But this benefit is substantially eroded by the emissions created when gas is vented or flared during the exploration, extraction, transport and distribution processes.




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Gas is mostly composed of methane, the most significant climate-warming agent after carbon dioxide. Methane survives for a shorter period in the atmosphere, but over 20 years has 86 times the planet-warming potential of carbon dioxide.

In 2019, the venting and flaring of methane accounted for 6% of Australia’s emissions – and this is likely a significant underestimate. These so-called “fugitive emissions” massively detract from the purported climate benefits of a gas transition.

Renewable energy is waiting to provide the decarbonisation Australia needs.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Running out of time

It is worth remembering that to make the gas projects viable, developers expect their projects to last for several decades at least. Gas can only be a “transition fuel” if there is a clear path out the other side to net-zero emissions. Locking in gas projects for decades makes that path impossible.

Where gas does provide a small benefit, this lock-in means it cannot be enough to secure globally-agreed temperature goals.




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A separate United Nations Environment Programme report last year considered how the world might limit global warming to globally agreed temperature goals – 1.5℃ or 2℃ above pre-industrial temperatures. Both of these targets will result in a climate notably less secure than that which drove Australia’s past year of extreme weather.

To meet the 1.5℃ target, emissions from all sources must fall by 7.6% per year between now and 2030, and keep decreasing after that.

Even 2℃ of global warming – a catastrophic temperature increase by any measure – would require annual emissions reduction of 2.7% per year. This is well beyond what can be accomplished with a long, slow detour through gas.

Over and above all this, is the simple point that increasing gas supply will not reduce prices anyway. Since 2016, the spike in energy prices in Australia has occurred because of the increase in gas supply. Nothing Morrison has proposed so far is capable of counteracting the perverse dynamic which brought that about.

It is entirely unnecessary for the federal government to continue down the gas route. The renewable energy sector is waiting in the wings to deliver massive emissions reduction and lower prices.

But in the sunniest and windiest inhabited continent on the planet, investment confidence in the renewables sector is collapsing on Morrison’s watch.The Conversation

Tim Baxter, Fellow – Melbourne Law School; Senior Researcher – Climate Council; Associate – Australian-German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.