We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Alamy Stock Photo

'We have energy security issues': EU's battle to cut Russian gas, quit fossil fuels, and protect supply

The Journal spoke to Irish MEPs about what they believe must be done to reduce energy dependency on Russia while also protecting the climate and supply.

THE EUROPEAN UNION is facing massive challenges in the energy sector.

As Russia continues to strike Ukraine, the EU is trying to balance reducing its dependency on Russian gas with safeguarding Europe’s energy supply – while at the same time, it must avoid backtracking on climate commitments and putting the future of the planet in serious danger.

Reporting from Strasbourg at an EU plenary, The Journal heard from Irish MEPs about what they believe must happen to reduce dependency on Russia while also protecting the climate and supply. 

Back in January, when Russia was preparing for (without publicly acknowledging) its invasion of Ukraine, experts were already warning that a conflict would have serious implications for Europe’s energy.

Since then, by the end of February, Eurozone energy prices had grown 31.7% compared to the previous year, while consumer prices rose 5.8%.

Bord Gáis has announced that electricity and gas bills will rise sharply next month, which it attributed partly to “geopolitical issues”. The average electricity bill will increase by 27% and the average gas bill by 39%.

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to investigate why we are facing an Irish electricity crisis. Support this project here.

How Europe gets its energy is not a new topic of debate; as the climate crisis worsens, scientists and lawmakers have been looking at how to end the burning of fossil fuels and move instead to renewable sources like wind, solar and geothermal.

Burning fossil fuels like oil and gas is a key driver of climate change. It releases large volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere which causes a rise in global temperatures, triggering major negative impacts for the planet.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has kickstarted European efforts to reduce the continent’s reliance on Russia for oil and gas, but whether that will accelerate or hinder efforts to decarbonise energy is yet to be seen.

Green MEPs Grace O’Sullivan and Ciarán Cuffe believe that replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources is possible while still maintaining a secure energy supply.

Last week, the European Commission proposed a plan to curtail Europe’s fossil fuel dependence on Russia by two-thirds before the end of 2022.

The outline of the REPowerEU plan said the measures could cut 155 billion cubic metres (bcm) of Europe’s fossil gas use, which is the same volume that was imported from Russia last year.

The EU imports 90% of the gas that it consumes, with Russian gas accounting for almost half (45%). Russia also provides 25% of oil imports and 45% of coal imports to the bloc.

The first main pillar of the plan is to increase infrastructure for and imports of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from non-Russian suppliers.

The second is to reduce the amount of fossil fuels that we burn by improving energy efficiency (that is, reducing the energy that needs to be used in the first place); increasing renewable sources and electrification; and addressing infrastructure ‘bottlenecks’. 

In an interview with The Journal, Cuffe said that the measures in the REPowerEU plan will reduce dependency on gas overall as well as on Russian gas in particular.

If the new measures in the plan can be inserted into the draft laws under Fit for 55 – the EU’s major climate legislation package – he expects they could be passed quickly throughout this year and early next year.

“On the downside, there’s a renewed focus on liquefied natural gas so that we’re not dependent on Russia,” Cuffe said.

I would still argue that energy efficiency measures can do more and do it quickly, far more quickly than LNG. A new LNG terminal, I think, in the Irish context would take five, ten years to deliver, whereas the energy efficiency measures – some of them can happen before next winter.

He said that “every country is different and what works for Germany may not work for France or for Ireland”.

“Germany is 55% reliable on Russian gas, so they want to move very quickly away from that. In Ireland, we’re not dependent on Russian gas. Our gas from comes mainly from the North Sea, so it’s a different question,” he said.

“For France, a lot of the issue revolves around nuclear and their wish to maintain their nuclear programme, although ironically, at the moment, they’re very dependent on coal because a lot of their nuclear power stations are out of action.

“This is why I keep coming back to energy efficiency. If we use less energy in the first place, it changes the rationale.”

Similarly, O’Sullivan said that Europe has a “huge problem with climate change” and that “we have to wean ourselves off this addiction to fossil fuels”.

Speaking to reporters in Strasbourg, she pointed to the European Green Deal, a set of policies that aim to make the EU ‘climate neutral’ by 2050, and said that it will need to be reexamined in the context of Russia.

“Instead of watering it down, which was happening to some degree over the past number of years, we need to actually bolster it up,” O’Sullivan said.

She said its strategies are “more important now than ever because one of the key components of that is energy security”.

“We have energy security issues, we have food security issues, we have a humanitarian crisis. In Europe we need really strong leadership to help us to move forward in a way that actually allows us to build the security that we need so we’re not dependent on countries like Russia.”

“The question is, how long will that transition be?”

In contrast, MEP Billy Kelleher believes that gas will need to be used as part of the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, saying that some countries like Poland, Bulgaria and Slovakia are particularly dependent on energy sources like coal.

“The great debate will have to be around whether or not gas is going to be used as a transition fuel, in other words, moving from coal to gas to renewables. There is a quite a philosophical debate or an ideological debate or an intellectual debate around this particular issue.

“I believe that gas will have to be used as a transition fuel in order to use natural gas to wean ourselves off coal and oil and eventually then to biomethane gas to replace the natural gas.

“That would be my logic in it. Wind, energy and solar panelling are all part of the mix and of course the biggest decision that we all have to make in Europe is in the context of nuclear power.”

In the background is a European Commission proposal from earlier this year, before the invasion, to classify nuclear power and natural gas as green sources of energy on an EU list called the Taxonomy.

It’s a policy that sparked criticism from several anti-nuclear countries and from scientists who say that the world cannot continue to burn gas because of the consequences for the climate.

However, others argue that gas will be a necessary ‘transition fuel’ in the ongoing switch from fossil fuels to renewables.

When asked by The Journal in January, Kelleher was the only Irish MEP to say they would support the classification of gas and nuclear as sustainable energy sources. Others said they disagreed with the idea or that they needed more time to consider it.

“The reason I did was because I looked at it primarily from a political viewpoint and also from a scientific viewpoint and I tried to marry the two of them to make decision,” Kelleher said.

“Scientifically, you could certainly argue that to get to carbon neutrality as quickly as possible, the more nuclear energy we have, the less dependent we are on gas, or coal or oil.”

He referenced the Celtic Interconnector, a planned link between Ireland and France that will allow for an exchange of electricity, and said that Ireland would not be deciding whether the energy coming through the connector came from a source like solar power or from nuclear power.

“We’re already purchasing nuclear power generated electricity from the UK. We’re already using it, it’s just that we don’t have a nuclear generation station in Ireland. At the moment, with the size of our country – the demand versus the size and the cost of it – it wouldn’t justify it, but we are going to be in the European grid,” Kelleher said.

Gas should be used as a transition. And the question then is, how long will that transition be? I can’t say how long that transition will be because it will be dependent on many factors, like can we reduce our overall energy consumption?

“But the one thing I’m certain of is if people have this ideological view that we can’t use gas and we turn it off, we’ll be burning coal for a very long time in other countries because they simply will not be able to transition as quickly as we’d like them to.”

However, O’Sullivan and Cuffe are firmly against the green label for gas and nuclear.

O’Sullivan said the measure “should be off the table” and that the EU should instead invest, and encourage investment and innovation, in “new areas that are available to us and try to pursue that as fast as possible”. 

Fellow Green MEP Cuffe said: “I was deeply critical of the taxonomy in the first instance and even more so now.”

“What we’ve seen in the last two weeks is shells being fired at a nuclear power station [in Ukraine], the workers being essentially held hostage, living in the power station 24/7,” he said.

In the light of the climate crisis, I was certainly looking again at nuclear, but from what we’ve seen in the last two weeks, I’m pretty reluctant to consider it further at this stage.

Sanctions and subsidies

The EU and countries like the US and UK have imposed far-reaching sanctions on Russia, but its energy exports to Europe have not been directly targeted and have remained relatively steady in recent weeks.

On whether the EU should impose sanctions on certain Russian banks that would target oil and gas payments, Seán Kelly said: “I think we’d be very wise to listen to what the European Commission says on it.”

“They will have worked it out pretty well and if they feel it’s necessary to further put the squeeze on Putin, then I think we shouldn’t be going against what they suggest.”

MEP Seán Kelly said that if Europe was not as dependent on Russia for energy as it is, it would “cut them off in the morning”.

In the transition away from fossil fuels, he said that it is “the planet we have to save, not just Europe”. 

How the EU engages with Russia on fossil fuels will be watched closely by the rest of the world, not least in the context of the bloc’s record on petitioning against fossil fuel subsidies.

At COP26, a United Nations climate conference that met in Glasgow last November, an initial draft of a deal between countries contained strong language on getting rid of subsidies for fossil fuels. 

However, subsequent versions watered down the commitment to make it “pretty meaningless”, one expert said.

The EU attracted criticism after the summit with suggestions that it was not a strong enough defender of the need to phase out subsidies against voices like Russia or China.

Last week, the European Parliament adopted a new Environment Action Programme, which includes a commitment to set a deadline for phasing out fossil fuel subsidies in line with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Seán Kelly believes it would be unfair to blame the EU for the outcome of the COP negotiations.

“It was the EU that led the climate change issue, the EU that introduced the Fit for 55 which many other countries are not doing,” he said.

“It would be unfair to lay the blame at the EU’s door. But ideally we would have been going further and quicker, and we need to do it in relation to the employment of renewables within the EU.”

In an interview with The Journal in January, Grace O’Sullivan said that the EU must keep the European Green Deal’s promises at the next COP summit, which will convene in Egypt in November.

“I think the role of the EU and of [European Commission] President Ursula von der Leyen is to keep the European Green Deal front and centre as a flagship for the EU but also as a leading light globally in how we deal with the climate crisis,” O’Sullivan said.

“We have to show, in Europe, why it was good to come up with this deal – why it’s economically good and socially important.”

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel