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The conflict in Ukraine is escalating and new sanctions are being announced. Some of the news are arguing about the EU's significant dependence on Russian gas.

The following graphic indicates that the EU did not manage to significantly reduce the dependence on Russian gas (source, page 13):

Share of Russian gas in European demand 1990–2013*

The graphic does not indicate recent values, but this article indicates that Russia continues to supply around 40% of EU gas consumption.

Despite the fact that Russia became more and more aggressive (clearly visible in 2014, when it annexed Crimea).

Why did EU fail to reduce the Russian natural gas dependence?

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  • 20
    Maybe Russian gas was just so super cheap, that they couldn't resist and didn't take the risk of that dependence seriously.
    – Trilarion
    Feb 22 at 20:20
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    27 countries would've had to all agree to shoot themselves in the foot by imposing an import tax. Raise your hand if you want to pay double what you're paying just because they're the 'baddies'.
    – Mazura
    Feb 23 at 12:06
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    The influence of "Gazprom" Schröder
    – RedSonja
    Feb 23 at 12:17
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    @RedSonja But Schröder is long gone. His successors haven't changed anything (it would be nice to see the graph in the question also from 2013 onwards).
    – Trilarion
    Feb 23 at 12:20
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    Schröder still has an office (tax-payer-funded) from which he wields considerable influence in his old party and business interests. He interferes often, making pro-Putin statements. Nordstrom 2 was his baby and he is paid a vast sum by the Russian gas industry.
    – RedSonja
    Feb 23 at 12:23

8 Answers 8

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There have been attempts. For example, consider the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, constructed from 2016 and completed in 2020 to transport natural gas from Azerbaijani fields into Europe without touching Russia. These attempts have not even been new, as is exemplified by the Nabucco Pipeline, the agreement to which was signed in 2009, well ahead of the current timeline of Ukraine-Russia skirmishes. (Nabucco was ultimately ditched in favour of the TAP.)

There are a few problems though:

  • The only sustainable way to reduce dependency of one gas supplier is to find a different one. That's precisely the idea behind Nabucco/TAP, but given geography and physics there are only a small handful of options to acquire gas.

  • The real, sustainable long-term solution is to replace gas with SomethingElse. However, given the concerns about climate change SomethingElse should not be fossil (gas is the fossil energy source that gives the most bang per carbon dioxide), given the difference in use cases nuclear is not always an option (a lot of gas is used directly for heating which nuclear power cannot directly provide) and although renewable energies are the stated goal their proliferation have been meagre, at best.

If you take a look at the blue bars, gas demand as a whole has stabilised since about 2005 and is tipping downwards, so it looks like the long-term strategy is slowly starting to bear blossoms that might become fruit one day. But this isn't a switch that can be done in a day and the share Russia supplies is simply too large for quick action.

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    Well written, but still they could have tried harder probably. Higher taxes on CO2 production, better insulation of houses, larger and well filled gas storages, more subventions for heating with solar energy.
    – Trilarion
    Feb 22 at 20:15
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    @Trilarion: Yes. Note that those measures are very good ideas for long-term planning. They're pretty hard to sell to voters, though, because they tend to be expensive on the short-term. Note that in large parts of Europe, it's not feasible to heat houses with just solar energy. In Germany, for example, solar heaters typically cover 20% of the heat demand, the rest being from heat-pumps, pellet boilers or gas boilers. Feb 22 at 20:31
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    @EricDuminil : Indeed, as energy prices increased significantly across Europe, there is a huge increase in anti-establishment sentiment. Opposition parties often exploit it, because they know many will just think "our government made us pay more for utilities to exploit us", hoping most people don't realize the gas prices were not set by local politicians (so a different political party won't be able to magically fix it, especially not on the short term). As long as the average voter only focuses on "why did I have to pay so much for utilities last month?!", there is no easy solution.
    – vsz
    Feb 23 at 5:23
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    Regarding your last paragraph: Sadly the demand of natural gas didn't keep falling beyond 2014 ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/… Feb 23 at 11:17
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    @Trilarion higher taxes on CO2 production might have actually increased usage of gas, given that many alternative sources (like oil and coal) create even more CO2 per energy unit. Feb 23 at 21:03
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  • One of the major gas producer in Europe was the Netherlands, but their Gas fields are depleted and production is dwindling.
  • The same is happening for Gas production in Scotland, but you'll have to search for the data by yourself, recent charts are not so easy to find online.
  • Other major suppliers on the European market are Libya and Algeria. Libya has been practically taken off the market with the bombs and in Algeria production has slightly declined.
  • Production in Norway is stable, but they can't cover the missing supply.
  • What can be shipped via LNG has a limit. Even increasing the number or regasification plants would not allow a volume of gas comparable to what can be delivered by pipeline.

Basically Europe depends on Russian supplies because there are no other options. The choice Europe made to transition to gas is also a choice to depend on Russia.

Update:

A lot of comments to this post claim that the ongoing transition is from coal power to gas power. That is not correct, coal is only part of the picture. In Germany the transition is from coal AND nuclear to Gas. In France the Nuclear power plants are aging and too few new ones are being built, part of the gap will be covered by Gas. In Italy the transition is from Oil fired to Gas fired power plants. The ongoing transition is officially confirmed by the EU commission decision to include gas in the climate mitigation plans and it will impact also the other countries replacing Nuclear, Coal, and Oil. So the demand is bound to increase while the production from alternative countries is declining. New Gas fields have been found in the Mediterranean sea, but it is not enough. The real problem is not the current dependence from Russia, but the future dependence from Russia.

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    @Trilarion The EU has been increasing the amount of renewables, from under 10% in 2004 to around 22% in 2020 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_energy_in_the_European_Union The change hasn't affected gas consumption as much as it might, mainly because renewables have been replacing coal which emits not only CO2 but lots of otehr nasties: SO2, nitrous oxides and particulates Feb 22 at 23:02
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    "The choice Europe made to transition to gas". I don't understand this : transitioned from what ? Natural gas is used to warm houses in Europe for more than a century...
    – Evargalo
    Feb 23 at 7:12
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    @Evargalo At least in some EU countries, coal was/is at least as common in domestic heating as gas. Coal-fired power plants are also still very much a thing.
    – TooTea
    Feb 23 at 9:00
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    The reason gas production from the Netherlands is falling rapidly is not depletion but the fact that extraction-caused earthquakes became too severe to make continued extraction politically viable Feb 23 at 13:48
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    @user2384824 That is the official reason, but it is also delusional. Check this page en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… but also check the history of the page, see how the Netherlands went down the list during the years. The Bubble as the Dutch call it is not completely exhausted, but production will keep falling.
    – FluidCode
    Feb 23 at 14:09
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Europe was balancing different priorities. Those apply to different degrees in different countries. The goal is to be climate-neutral by 2050.

  • Divesting from nuclear power, which is seen as dangerous (cf Chernobyl, Fukushima) and which has unresolved waste issues. There are exemptions, e.g. France, so it was written into the plan for the transition period.
  • Divesting from coal and especially lignite, which is seen as harmful for the environment. Again there are exemptions, e.g. Poland.
  • Compared to that, gas is relatively clean, and gas power plants are also able to generate power quickly, an important feature when it is combined with inconstant solar or wind power.

So where would the gas come from? One option is to import LNG, but liquefaction increases the climate impact. Another option is to buy from Russia.

Even during the Cold War and in the run-up to the Ukraine crisis, Russia had fulfilled their long-term contracts with the West. Russian energy blackmail came into play with countries which used to get discount prices, and could not pay the full market price.

We will see how this crisis plays out. Russia is vulnerable to a lack of money to balance their budgets, Europe is vulnerable to a lack of gas to heat their homes.

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    Gas is not climate neutral. Gas in not clean.
    – FluidCode
    Feb 22 at 18:49
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    @FluidCode, for that reason I wrote "relatively." In italics, even.
    – o.m.
    Feb 22 at 18:50
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    @FluidCode, do you doubt that gas was selected over coal in the EU because it is cleaner than coal? Always consider what it replaces.
    – o.m.
    Feb 22 at 18:58
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    @FluidCode Relatively is about a factor of two between lignite and gas. Not sure I would consider that small.
    – doneal24
    Feb 22 at 19:49
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    Gas is also considered a bridge technology to renewables because the infrastructure for natural gas can be relatively easily converted to use hydrogen generated from renewable energy later. For example, there is currently a project in the city of Hamburg to build an industrial hydrogen network reusing infrastructure previously used for natural gas. ("Hamburger Wasserstoff-Industrie-Netz"). Green hydrogen is a possible way to solve the base-load problem of solar and wind energy. Produce it when there is excess electricity from wind and sun available, burn it when there is a shortage.
    – Philipp
    Feb 23 at 13:28
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Note: I readily admit that cannot provide sources for my claim — I simply don't have time today. But I don't see this important reason in the other answers, and it is, as I believe, central.

Economic cooperation and interdependence between Russia and Western Europe was considered one important puzzle piece and condition for peaceful coexistence.

This concept informed especially West German policies long before the fall of the USSR. The "Entspannungspolitik", the specific Détente between the two Germanies and the western and eastern block generally, was not only political. The economic cooperation that had developed during the Cold War period gained steam afterwards, as the economic charts show.

The idea was to make war prohibitively expensive. As a side effect, misled rulers would have a hard time to spin reasons for a war with a factual ally and collaborator with whom many citizens have economic and touristic direct relations. The European Union is a good example that this strategy can work, even if the current Russian war against Ukraine is a clear failure: Never in thousands of years, I think, have Germany and France lived as peacefully and prosperous side by side as during the post-war European economic and political integration. The current state of affairs would have been plainly unthinkable in most of the modern times.1 For centuries, France was considered Germany's arch enemy, the "hereditary enemy", and vice versa. Who would have thought, generally, that the imperialistic Germany, since its modern inception plagued by delusions of national grandeur and outright paranoid conspiracy theories, could be an central part of a united Europe, a peaceful hub in a tightly integrated web of peaceful and fruitful interdependence.

The post WW II European integration strategy was uniquely successful and beneficial to all involved.

It took Germany only 20 years after WW II to become a peaceful keystone of the European integration.

It's obvious that delusions and paranoia are what's plaguing Russia today. Equally obvious is the central role Russia with its huge natural and human resources and rich culture, science and technology could play in an economically and politically integrated Eurasia. Chances are I live to see that.

If anything, Russia's economic ties to Europe were not strong enough, a failure of epic proportions.


1 And I side with Steven Pinker that we tend to underestimate the enormous progress we have made. The current peaceful integration of Europe is a historical miracle to behold, a unique achievement of monumental importance. We must cherish and nurture it. We must under no circumstance squander it. Previously, integration on this scale was always achieved by violent imperialism of different flavors, from Rome to Napoleon. Disintegration was the typical state of affairs though, with frequent catastrophic war events as conflict solving strategies.

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  • "current peaceful integration" until the economic bomb explodes, showing that southern europe is just a reserovir of cheap, skilled workforce and a buffer market to absorb german production surplus when the rest of the world cannot buy it. And let's not dig into the financial network ... also in that framework you may check the amount of VW cars sold through their financial arm, rather than through the old-school transaction car vs cash ...
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 25 at 9:24
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    @EarlGrey Pathetic niggling. You looking at minor imperfections on a monumental masterpiece, standing much too close to the big picture. Pinker to the rescue! ;-) Feb 25 at 9:28
  • Please respect the consecutio temporum, "integration on this scale was always achieved by violent imperialism [...] Disintegration was the typical state of affairs". Now we are in the integration phase, if you lived in the core of the empire (Rome, or Paris) it was always peaceful, the friction were at the boundaries (Adrian's wall, Germany, Portugal with Napoleon) ... soon to follow the violent disintegration to resolve the internal, unresolved frictions ;)
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 25 at 9:42
  • @EarlGrey Not sure what you want to say. But as to the facts: The Gauls were violently subjugated , living in Lutetia was not always peaceful. And yes, I agree, periods of integration end (because only love is eternal); but what do you want to say with that? That peaceful integration is not an achievement? That we should not cherish and nurture it? Feb 25 at 10:20
  • I don't know if it is you or Pinker thinking this "Never in thousands of years, I think, have Germany and France lived as peacefully and prosperous side by side as during the post-war European economic and political integration" but it is a blatant ignorant simplification that equiparates the kingdom of France with current France. as well as Germany with the Holy Roman Empire. It would be as stupid as claiming that Russia is fighting nazism now, because Stalin fought nazism. I admit that this line of thinking would make you (or Pinker)an adequate peer reviewer of Putin discourses, be my guest.
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 25 at 10:29
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According to Jonathan Stern, head of the Natural Gas Research Programme at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies in the UK, there is no alternative to Russian gas, especially after the Netherlands stopped producing gas because of the economic losses inflicted to a large swath of its population living close to the Dutch gas fields.

Switching from natural gas to an existing and equally convenient energy source is not possible, as such an energy source does not exist. Switching to a much less efficient energy source is equally not possible with the current boundary conditions, because in the last 15 years the EU decided to go back to the Middle Ages, by promoting austerity economic programs, while major changes in the way the economic system works necessarily require huge public investments.

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  • side note: Royal Shell was the name of the company, because the royals were part of it. Now it is just Shell, the Dutch royals are just getting huge dividend payouts ... while they cycle to run their green errands, their wallets and all of their properties is oil-based.
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 24 at 13:24
  • No, there are many more Dutch companies that may call themselves "Royal". KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, for instance, even though it's owned by Air France. "Royal" is an honorific, not tied to ownership. The myth that the Dutch Royal family owned Shell was shattered when major shareholders needed to go public. The largest owner is BlackRock with a mere 7%
    – MSalters
    Feb 24 at 17:26
  • I never claimed the royal family owned Shell. To be more precise, the shareholders with more than 5% (or 4%) were forced to go public. I strongly believe the royal family has less than 5% (or 4%), but more than 0.0% of Shell stocks.
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 24 at 17:37
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    Rather be alive than free I guess.... - Where can the EU get 40% of their gas from if not Russia? Apparently they can't, so amazingly somehow it's not even a question of money, +1.
    – Mazura
    Feb 24 at 19:25
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It was expected that by earning lots of money from Europe, Russia will value good relations, successful trading contracts, and will see no reason of engaging into conflicts that would cost money. Hence the approach was considered safe enough (source)

Those engaging in trade with each other do not shoot at one another

It is a restatement of Norman Angell’s pre-WWI theory that the new interdependence of economies makes war unprofitable and thus irrational. This somehow did not work as expected.

-1

Continental countries close to Russia can't import oil through boats very easily.

The Poland was entrapped behind the iron curtain and has a deep resentment of Russian power, but they still had Russian oil infrastructure, that is changing:

jan 17/2022: Saudi Arabia’s planned purchase of Polish refining assets is set to put OPEC's top producer in charge of two thirds of Poland's oil supply, eroding previously dominant supplier Russia's leverage as it grapples with regional tension.

It's Saudi vs Russian oil, out of the pot into the frying pan.

Continental European powers have been a natural allies to avert mutual local threats and against major powers like France was, and have complex ties with Britain and the English-speaking world. Allegiance against the French and in NATO/EU, and total war in WW1 and WW2 due to complex issues like the naval race of the late 1800's, which Prussia contested against Britain.

For example, The Russo-Prussian alliance signed by the Kingdom of Prussia and the Russian Empire on 11 April 1764.

The Reinsurance Treaty, (June 18, 1887) was a secret agreement between Germany and Russia arranged by the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

Dreikaiserbund, English Three Emperors’ League was an alliance in the latter part of the 19th century of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia.

Also the toll of 19 million lives in WW2 perhaps makes Germany feel like it has a debt to Russia.

The annual trade between Russia and Germany is 25 to 45 billion. enter image description here

Honestly, Putin is acting like a paranoid, isolated and belittled mad dog leader intent to show his strength... Lest there be the question: who coerced him to act paranoid, belittled and isolated?

Perhaps a simple friendly series of pacifist statements by Biden would have saved many lives, in the last 12 months of alarmist enmities on both sides.

Recall that Britain led a war with Russia over Crimea in the 1850's, which cost 250,000 lives. The continental/maritime natural power alliances haven't changed very much.

-3

Cooperation with Russia is facilitated by the ruling elite that has considerable ties with Putin's regime. The larger countries include Germany and France, plus smaller players such as Hungary and Croatia.

The list of mostly former politicians with Russian ties includes Gerhard Schroeder and other prominent figures (Matthias Platzeck, Matthias Hoehn, Rolf Muetzenich, etc).

REFERENCE: Who are the allies of Vladimir Putin and Russia in Germany?

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    A list of opposition figures and ex-leaders ...
    – o.m.
    Feb 22 at 18:48
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    The German politicians mentioned here do not hold significant political power since a long time. I don't buy the explanation. Now if Angela Merkel was part of that list.
    – Trilarion
    Feb 22 at 20:04
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    @Trilarion OP may be arguing that European politicians co-operate with Russia now in the unstated expectation that they will be rewarded with lucrative corporate positions in the future. This would be a special case of the 'revolving door' phenomenon. If so, a list of former politicians with overt Russian ties is supporting evidence. OP's answer could be improved by making this logic explicit.
    – Matthew
    Feb 23 at 5:22
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    You can add François Fillon in your list of "former politicians with Russian ties", but you would need to explain in your answer (with documented facts and decisions) why those ties would explain Europe relying on Russian gas.
    – Evargalo
    Feb 23 at 7:17

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