Green campaigns have succeeded in destroying the West’s energy independence by successfully selling policymakers on a peculiar version of environmentalism. It calls climate change a near-term apocalyptic threat to human survival while turning up its nose at the technologies that can help address climate change most: nuclear and natural gas. We should take Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a wake-up call. Standing up for Western civilization requires cheap, abundant, and reliable energy supplies produced at home or in allied nations. National security, economic growth, and sustainability require greater reliance on nuclear and natural gas, and less on solar panels and wind turbines, which make electricity too expensive.
By The International Chronicles, Michael Shellenberger for https://bariweiss.substack.com, and Francis Menton for The Manhattan Contrarian
Percentage share of natural gas supply imported from Russia:
North Macedonia, Bosnia
Herzegovina and Moldova
How has Vladimir Putin—a man ruling a country with an economy smaller than that of Texas, with an average life expectancy 10 years lower than that of France—managed to launch an unprovoked full-scale assault on Ukraine?
There is a deep psychological, political and almost civilizational answer to that question: He wants Ukraine to be part of Russia more than the West wants it to be free. He is willing to risk tremendous loss of life and treasure to get it. There are serious limits to how much the U.S. and Europe are willing to do militarily. And Putin knows it.
Missing from that explanation, though, is a story about material reality and basic economics—two things that Putin seems to understand far better than his counterparts in the free world and especially in Europe.
Putin knows that Europe produces 3.6 million barrels of oil a day but uses 15 million barrels of oil a day. Putin knows that Europe produces 230 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year but uses 560 billion cubic meters. He knows that Europe uses 950 million tons of coal a year but produces half that.
The former KGB agent knows Russia produces 11 million barrels of oil per day but only uses 3.4 million. He knows Russia now produces over 700 billion cubic meters of gas a year but only uses around 400 billion. Russia mines 800 million tons of coal each year but uses 300.
That’s how Russia ends up supplying about 20 percent of Europe’s oil, 40 percent of its gas, and 20 percent of its coal.
The math is simple. A child could do it.
The reason Europe didn’t have a muscular deterrent threat to prevent Russian aggression—and in fact prevented the U.S. from getting allies to do more—is that it needs Putin’s oil and gas.
How is it possible that European countries, Germany especially, allowed themselves to become so dependent on an authoritarian country over the 30 years since the end of the Cold War?
Here’s how: These countries are in the grips of a delusional ideology that makes them incapable of understanding the hard realities of energy production. Green ideology insists we don’t need nuclear and that we don’t need fracking. It insists that it’s just a matter of will and money to switch to all-renewables—and fast. It insists that we need “degrowth” of the economy, and that we face looming human “extinction.” (I would know. I myself was once a true believer.)
John Kerry, the United States’ climate envoy, perfectly captured the myopia of this view when he said, in the days before the war, that the Russian invasion of Ukraine “could have a profound negative impact on the climate, obviously. You have a war, and obviously you’re going to have massive emissions consequences to the war. But equally importantly, you’re going to lose people’s focus.”
But it was the West’s focus on healing the planet with “soft energy” renewables, and moving away from natural gas and nuclear, that allowed Putin to gain a stranglehold over Europe’s energy supply.
As the West fell into a hypnotic trance about healing its relationship with nature, averting climate apocalypse and worshiping a teenager named Greta, Vladimir Putin made his moves.
While he expanded nuclear energy at home so Russia could export its precious oil and gas to Europe, Western governments spent their time and energy obsessing over “carbon footprints,” a term created by an advertising firm working for British Petroleum. They banned plastic straws because of a 9-year-old Canadian child’s science homework. They paid for hours of “climate anxiety” therapy.
While Putin expanded Russia’s oil production, expanded natural gas production, and then doubled nuclear energy production to allow more exports of its precious gas, Europe, led by Germany, shut down its nuclear power plants, closed gas fields, and refused to develop more through advanced methods like fracking.
The numbers tell the story best. In 2016, 30 percent of the natural gas consumed by the European Union came from Russia. In 2018, that figure jumped to 40 percent. By 2020, it was nearly 44 percent, and by early 2021, it was nearly 47 percent.
For all his fawning over Putin, Donald Trump, back in 2018, defied diplomatic protocol to call out Germany publicly for its dependence on Moscow. “Germany, as far as I’m concerned, is captive to Russia because it’s getting so much of its energy from Russia,” Trump said. This prompted Germany’s then-chancellor, Angela Merkel, who had been widely praised in polite circles for being the last serious leader in the West, to say that her country “can make our own policies and make our own decisions.”
The result has been the worst global energy crisis since 1973, driving prices for electricity and gasoline higher around the world. It is a crisis, fundamentally, of inadequate supply. But the scarcity is entirely manufactured.
Europeans—led by figures like Greta Thunberg and European Green Party leaders, and supported by Americans like John Kerry—believed that a healthy relationship with the Earth requires making energy scarce. By turning to renewables, they would show the world how to live without harming the planet. But this was a pipe dream. You can’t power a whole grid with solar and wind, because the sun and the wind are inconstant, and currently existing batteries aren’t even cheap enough to store large quantities of electricity overnight, much less across whole seasons.
In service to green ideology, they made the perfect the enemy of the good—and of Ukraine.
Green campaigns have succeeded in destroying German energy independence—they call it Energiewende, or “energy turnaround”—by successfully selling policymakers on a peculiar version of environmentalism. It calls climate change a near-term apocalyptic threat to human survival while turning up its nose at the technologies that can help address climate change most and soonest: nuclear and natural gas.
At the turn of the millennium, Germany’s electricity was around 30 percent nuclear-powered. But Germany has been sacking its reliable, inexpensive nuclear plants. (Thunberg called nuclear power “extremely dangerous, expensive, and time-consuming” despite the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change deeming it necessary and every major scientific review deeming nuclear the safest way to make reliable power.)
By 2020, Germany had reduced its nuclear share from 30 percent to 11 percent. Then, on the last day of 2021, Germany shut down half of its remaining six nuclear reactors. The other three are slated for shutdown at the end of this year. (Compare this to nextdoor France, which fulfills 70 percent of its electricity needs with carbon-free nuclear plants.)
Germany has also spent lavishly on weather-dependent renewables—to the tune of $36 billion a year—mainly solar panels and industrial wind turbines. But those have their problems. Solar panels have to go somewhere, and a solar plant in Europe needs 400 to 800 times more land than natural gas or nuclear plants to make the same amount of power. Farmland has to be cut apart to host solar. And solar energy is getting cheaper these days mainly because Europe’s supply of solar panels is produced by slave labor in concentration camps as part of China’s genocide against Uighur Muslims.
The upshot here is that you can’t spend enough on climate initiatives to fix things if you ignore nuclear and gas. Between 2015 and 2025, Germany’s efforts to green its energy production will have cost $580 billion. Yet despite this enormous investment, German electricity still costs 50 percent more than nuclear-friendly France’s, and generating it produces eight times more carbon emissions per unit. Plus, Germany is getting over a third of its energy from Russia.
Germany has trapped itself. It could burn more coal and undermine its commitment to reducing carbon emissions. Or it could use more natural gas, which generates half the carbon emissions of coal, but at the cost of dependence on imported Russian gas. Berlin was faced with a choice between unleashing the wrath of Putin on neighboring countries or inviting the wrath of Greta Thunberg. They chose Putin.
Because of these policy choices, Vladimir Putin could turn off the gas flows to Germany, and quickly threaten Germans’ ability to cook or stay warm. He or his successor will hold this power for every foreseeable winter barring big changes. It’s as if you knew that hackers had stolen your banking details, but you won’t change your password.
This is why Germany successfully begged the incoming Biden administration not to oppose a contentious new gas pipeline from Russia called Nord Stream 2. This cut against the priorities of green-minded governance: On day one of Biden’s presidency, one of the new administration’’s first acts was to shut down the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. in service to climate ideology. But Russia’s pipeline was too important to get the same treatment given how dependent Germany is on Russian imports. (Once Russia invaded, Germany was finally dragged into nixing Nord Stream 2, for now.)
Naturally, when American sanctions on Russia’s biggest banks were finally announced in concert with European allies last week, they specifically exempted energy products so Russia and Europe can keep doing that dirty business. A few voices called for what would really hit Russia where it hurts: cutting off energy imports. But what actually happened was that European energy utilities jumped to buy more contracts for the Russian oil and gas that flows through Ukraine. That’s because they have no other good options right now, after green activism’s attacks on nuclear and importing fracked gas from America. There’s no current plan for powering Europe that doesn’t involve buying from Putin.
We should take Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a wake-up call. Standing up for Western civilization this time requires cheap, abundant, and reliable energy supplies produced at home or in allied nations. National security, economic growth, and sustainability requires greater reliance on nuclear and natural gas, and less on solar panels and wind turbines, which make electricity too expensive.
The first and most obvious thing that should be done is for President Biden to call on German Chancellor Scholz to restart the three nuclear reactors that Germany closed in December. A key step in the right direction came on Sunday when Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, the economy and climate minister, announced that Germany would at least consider stopping its phaseout of nuclear. If Germany turns these three on and cancels plans to turn off the three others, those six should produce enough electricity to replace 11 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year—an eighth of Germany’s current needs.
Second, we need concerted action led by Biden, Congress, and their Canadian counterparts to significantly expand oil and natural gas output from North America to ensure the energy security of our allies in Europe and Asia. North America is more energy-rich than anyone dreamed. Yes, it will be more expensive than Russian gas sent by pipeline. But it would mean Europe could address Putin’s war on Ukraine, rather than financing it.
Exporting gas by ship requires special terminals at ports to liquify (by cooling) natural gas; environmentalists oppose these terminals because of their ideological objection to any combustible fuel. So it’s a good sign that Chancellor Sholz announced plans on Sunday to build two of these terminals to receive North American gas, along with announcing major new military spending to counter Russia.
Third, the U.S. must stop shutting down nuclear plants and start building them. Every country should invest in next-generation nuclear fuel technology while recognizing that the current generation of light-water reactors are our best tool for creating energy at home, with no emissions, right now. What you’ve heard about waste is mostly pseudoscience. Storing used fuel rods is a trivial problem, already solved around the world by keeping them in steel and concrete cans. The more nuclear power we generate, the less oil and gas we have to burn. And the less the West will have to buy from Russia.
Putin’s relentless focus on energy reality has left him in a stronger position than he should ever have been allowed to find himself. It’s not too late for the rest of the West to save the world from tyrannical regimes that have been empowered by our own energy superstitions.
Ukraine And Energy Realism
For a long time I have thought that the public in Western countries would wake up to the absurdity of fossil fuel suppression when the price of energy to the consumer rose high enough. And to a substantial degree that has begun to happen.
But the cost of fossil fuel suppression is not merely a modest degradation in our comfortable lifestyles and impoverishment of the poor. As the situation in Ukraine is now demonstrating, fossil fuel suppression in the U.S., Europe and other Western countries also entails significant empowerment of our most significant geopolitical adversaries, and poses major risks to world security, and even to our national security.
The coming of the Biden administration a year ago brought a full-on government war on the fossil fuel industries: cancellation of pipelines; ending of leasing of mineral rights on government lands and offshore; an order that all government agencies work by regulation to eliminate fossil fuels from electricity generation by 2035; threats by bank regulators against banks that lend to the fossil fuel industries; initiatives by the SEC to make it more difficult and costly for industries to use fossil fuels; dozens of initiatives in places like the Department of Energy and Interior Department to block projects using fossil fuels or make them more difficult or costly; and much, much more.
As should have surprised no one, prices of fossil fuels responded by rising dramatically. Prices of crude oil have gone from a range of about $40-60 per barrel during the Trump years to close to $100 per barrel today. U.S. natural gas prices that averaged about $3/MMBtu during the Trump years are now about $4.50 (having spiked over $6 in late 2021). In Europe, where almost all fracking has been suppressed by governments out of supposed concern for the environment, the most recent price for natural gas imports is close to $30/MMBtu
Certainly, a direct impact of these rising prices has been increased costs to the consumer: increased electricity bills, increased home heating bills, increased costs for gasoline for automobiles. For example the average price of regular gasoline at the pump in the U.S. has gone from about $2.25 in January 2021 to about $3.60 today.
But equally important is the degree to which these dramatic rises in energy prices benefit all the worst actors on the world state, starting with Russia. Russia is largely dependent on energy production and exports to the West for its government budget. A year ago, with energy prices in the toilet, Vladimir Putin was basically broke. Today, with energy prices having almost doubled, he is relatively flush. And suddenly we have an invasion of Ukraine, basically financed by Western countries that have suppressed their own production of oil and gas and thus must buy the stuff from Russia.
So why, you might ask, don’t the Western countries just cut off imports from Russia and leave Putin high and dry? The simple answer is that the Western countries have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in wind and solar energy that don’t work and don’t provide the energy needed; so if these countries want to keep their electrical grid running, they need to buy natural gas, which principally comes from Russia.
Consider Germany. Germany adopted its “Energiewende” back in 2010, and fancies itself leading the world to the great clean renewable energy future. Germany’s peak electricity usage is about 90 GW. To supply that, it has built some 65 GW of wind power capacity, and almost 60 GW of solar power capacity. So that’s a total of about 125 GW of generation capacity right there, against peak usage of about 90 GW. Sounds like they have plenty of power from the wind and sun alone to take care of all their needs.
But of course wind and solar don’t work that way. Here in the winter, we have the times of cloudy days, calm winds, and long nights. Here is a chart from Agora Energiewende of Germany’s electricity generation and consumption for the past few days:
It looks like just after the sunset today the wind and sun together were generating less than 5 GW out of that supposed “capacity” of 125 GW. Usage was about 50 GW at the time. Oh, and Germany is also phasing out its nuclear reactors. So aside from those tiny amounts of hydro and “biomass” at the bottom of the chart, that leaves coal, oil and natural gas; or alternatively, a blackout. From Time, today:
Th[e] glaring omission in Biden’s sanctions package could be the consequence of a promise to the countries of Europe, cowering in fear as their dependency on Russian gas renders them impotent to fight back against Russia’s invasion. This is not unreasonable. Germany especially will suffer if Russian gas imports are blocked; Europe imports 40% of its natural gas from Russia, but for Germany it is up to 50%, on top of 45% dependency on Russian coal and 34% on Russian oil. Meanwhile, Germany is continuing to phase out nuclear, making it more reliant on Russian energy imports.
And of course the U.S. can’t supply these European energy needs because the Biden Administration is intentionally suppressing natural gas production here.
Is it time for a little energy realism from the Biden people? Here are the remarks from Climate Envoy John Kerry a couple of days ago as Russia’s Ukraine invasion got underway:
“But it could have a profound negative impact on the climate obviously. You have a war and obviously you’re going to have massive emissions consequences to the war. But equally importantly, you’re going to lose people’s focus, you’re going to lose certainly big country attention because they will be diverted and I think it could have a damaging impact. . . .”
It’s almost impossible to fathom how idiotic and clueless this guy is. And I don’t necessarily mean just to pick on Kerry. It’s all of them, not the least Biden himself.