Wonder why Russia has Europe over a barrel? Ask German EnvironmentalistsÂ
By William Yeatman
It is said that Vladimir Lenin once called Soviet sympathizers in Western countries â€œuseful idiotsâ€ for unwittingly advancing the cause of revolutionary Russia. Were the Bolshevik leader alive today, he might apply the same label to German environmentalists, whose influence over their countryâ€™s energy policy has been an inadvertent, but essential factor in Moscowâ€™s post-Cold War rise.
Two decades of stringent environmental regulations have made Germany, Europeâ€™s largest economy, increasingly dependent on natural gas from Russia, the worldâ€™s largest exporter. Of course, economic leverage translates seamlessly into political power, and Russiaâ€™s sway over German foreign policy has been conspicuous as the recent imbroglio in Georgia has continued to play out.
In fact, Germany has the means to power its economy without Russian natural gas, so energy dependence is unnecessary. For starters, it is home to the largest reserves of coal in Europe. But thanks to the European Unionâ€™s marquee climate-change mitigation policyâ€”the continent-wide Emission Trading Schemeâ€”the economics of power production have shifted decidedly against coal because its combustion releases the most greenhouse gases of any conventional fuel source.
Given that coal is currently taboo, Germany could meet its energy needs by expanding the use of nuclear energy, which emits no carbon dioxide when used to generate electricity. Yet the environmental movement in Germany opposes nuclear energy because its waste is difficult and dangerous to store. In 2000, environmentalists won passage of the Nuclear Exit Law, which commits German utilities to phasing out nuclear power by 2020.
Rather than coal or nuclear, the environmental movement prefers sustainable sources of power such as wind and solar, and it has convinced the German government to grant generous subsidies to the renewable energy industry. But despite these investments, renewables are still too costly to displace conventional energy sources, which is why wind and solar power account for less than 2 percent of Germanyâ€™s primary energy production, according to government figures.
That leaves natural gas, which is cleaner than coal and less expensive than alternative energy. Germany is fortunate to have large deposits of gasâ€”more than 9 trillion cubic feetâ€”most of which is thought to lie beneath the northwestern state of Niedersachsen. Environmental regulations, however, have limited exploration and development in the region.
To meet its demand for energy, Germany turned to Gazprom, a state-owned company that has a legal monopoly on natural gas exports from Russia. Natural gas currently accounts for almost a quarter of all the energy consumed in Germany, including all electricity in homes, gasoline in cars, and coal for industrial boilers. Thatâ€™s up 40 percent since 1991. And Gazprom now supplies 40 percent of all natural gas consumption in Germany, an increase of 55 percent over the same period.
Currently, almost 40 percent of Germanyâ€™s domestic gas consumption comes from Russia. That share is likely to increase with the construction of the Northern Pipeline, a project to be completed in 2010 that would link Russian gas directly to Central European markets.
Itâ€™s little wonder, then, that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the first major world leader to pay a visit to new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Or that at last springâ€™s NATO summit in Romania, German diplomats orchestrated the opposition to U.S. President George W. Bushâ€™s plan for expanding the trans-Atlantic military alliance to include Georgia and Ukraine. Before the summit, Russian officials had warned that NATO expansion would cause a â€œdeep crisis,â€ and provoke a â€œresponseâ€ from Russia.
Read the rest of this story at Foreign Policy.