In December 2006, The Economist journal published a cover drawing of Russian president Vladimir Putin, dressed like a Thirties gangster in a darkish go well with and fedora hat, below the headline “Don’t Mess with Russia.” Putin held a gasoline nozzle, gripping it like a machine gun. The goal presumably was Europe, which relied closely on Russia for oil and pure gasoline.

The duvet story’s subheading asserted, “Russia’s recurring abuse of its vitality muscle is dangerous for its residents, its neighbourhood and the world.” At present that assertion nonetheless rings true with Russia’s cutoff of natural gas deliveries to Poland and Bulgaria.

As an energy scholar who has lived and labored in Europe, I do know that gasoline is a valuable commodity that’s vital for industries, energy technology and heating buildings – particularly in northern Europe, the place winters may be harsh and lengthy. This explains why European nations import gasoline from many sources, however have grown to rely on Russian provides to maintain their houses heat and their economies buzzing.

From oil embargoes to gasoline cutoffs

The vitality weapon can take many types.

In 1967 and 1973, Arab nations reduce off oil exports to the U.S. and different Western nations that supported Israel in conflicts towards its Center East neighbors. Withholding provide was a strategy to inflict financial ache on opponents and win coverage concessions.

At present, an oil embargo may not work as nicely. Oil is a fungible commodity in a worldwide market: If one supply cuts off shipments, importing nations can simply purchase extra oil from different suppliers, though they might pay greater costs on spot markets than they’d have below long-term contracts.

That’s potential as a result of greater than 60% of the world’s every day oil consumption is delivered by ship. At any given second, a flotilla of seaborne vessels is carrying crude oil from one level to a different across the globe. If there are disruptions, the ships can change course and get to their locations inside a matter of weeks.

Because of this, it’s onerous for one oil-producing nation to stop a consuming nation from shopping for oil on the worldwide market.

Against this, pure gasoline is moved primarily by pipeline. Solely 13% of the world’s gasoline provide is delivered by tankers carrying liquefied natural gas. This makes gasoline extra of a regional or continental commodity, with sellers and patrons who’re bodily linked to one another.

It’s a lot tougher for patrons to seek out different pure gasoline provides than different oil sources as a result of laying new pipelines or constructing new liquefied pure gasoline import and export terminals can value billions of {dollars} and take a few years. Consequently, gasoline disruptions are felt rapidly and might final a very long time.

The actual value of shopping for Russian gasoline

European nations’ dependence on Russian vitality, significantly pure gasoline, complicates their overseas insurance policies.

As many observers have identified since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, European shoppers’ heavy reliance on Russian oil and gasoline over the many years has funded and emboldened Putin’s regime and made European governments hesitant within the face of dangerous conduct. It was no accident that Russia invaded in February, when it’s coldest and European demand for gasoline for heating buildings is highest.

As a result of the European gasoline grid spans many nations, Russia’s shutoff of gasoline to Poland and Bulgaria doesn’t simply have an effect on these two nations. Costs will rise as gasoline pressures within the pipelines that run by way of these nations to different nations drop. The scarcity will finally ripple by way of to different nations additional downstream, resembling France and Germany.

If Europeans can cut back their gasoline consumption rapidly because the heating season winds down and gasoline energy vegetation are changed with different sources, they will gradual the onset of ache. Fuller use of liquefied pure gasoline imports from coastal terminals may additionally assist.

Within the longer run, the European Union is working to increase energy efficiency in existing buildings, that are already environment friendly in comparison with U.S. buildings. It additionally goals to fill gasoline storage caverns to 90% capability throughout the off-peak seasons when gasoline demand is decrease, and ramp up native manufacturing of biomethane – which may substitute for fossil gasoline – derived from agricultural waste or other organic, renewable sources.

Constructing extra import terminals to usher in liquefied pure gasoline from the U.S., Canada or different pleasant nations can also be an possibility. Nevertheless, creating new fossil gas infrastructure would battle with efforts to cut back greenhouse gasoline emissions to gradual local weather change.

Ramping up wind, photo voltaic, geothermal and nuclear energy vegetation as rapidly as potential to displace the continent’s pure gasoline energy vegetation is a key precedence for the EU. So is changing pure gasoline heating techniques with electrical warmth pumps, which may additionally present air-con throughout the continent’s increasingly frequent and intense summer heat waves. These options align with the EU’s local weather goals, which means that Russia’s gasoline cutoffs may finally speed up European nations’ efforts to shift to renewable vitality and extra environment friendly use of electrical energy.

All of those choices are efficient however take time. Sadly, Europe doesn’t have many choices earlier than subsequent winter. Prospects are worse for vitality prospects in poorer areas, resembling Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa, which is able to merely go with out within the face of upper vitality costs.

Will Russia’s cutoff backfire?

Whereas gasoline provide disruptions will undoubtedly inflict ache on European shoppers, in addition they are onerous on Russia, which badly wants the cash. At the moment, Putin is ordering “unfriendly” nations to pay for Russian energy in rubles to spice up Russia’s forex, which has misplaced worth below the burden of financial sanctions. Poland and Bulgaria had refused to pay in rubles.

Reducing off gasoline provides in February would have been costly for Russia and absolutely would have impressed much more backlash in Europe. By wielding pure gasoline as a weapon when the climate is gentle, Russia can flex its petro-muscles with out being too aggressive or shedding an excessive amount of cash. The important thing query now’s whether or not Europe wants Russian gasoline greater than Russia wants income from European gross sales.

Michael E. Webber, Josey Centennial Professor of Power Sources, University of Texas at Austin

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