AAs Russia threatens to cut off the fossil gas on which much of Europe depends, the continent’s storage facilities are a crucial line of defense. You will therefore be happy to learn that Germany has a huge gas storage reservoir, under the town of Rehden, in Lower Saxony. The first strategic reserve in Western Europe, it can contain enough fossil gas to supply 2 million homes for a year.
You’ll be less thrilled to find out who it belongs to. It’s owned by a company called Astora. Astora is a subsidiary of the Russian state company Gazprom. In total, he holds about a quarter German gas depots. All are almost empty. They have been reduced to 10% or less of their capacity. According to the German Minister of Economy and Climate Action, these storages have been “systematically emptied”.
Idiocy is nested within idiocy like a pile of Russian dolls. Germany allowed private companies to control its strategic reserve and imposed no legal requirements on how much gas the reserve should contain. Nor did it prevent companies controlled by foreign states from owning them. Instead, like the UK, it has ceded this crucial security issue to a mysterious deity it calls “the market”.
With the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, Germany has latched onto Russian gas, even as analysts have warned it could become a major strategic liability. Their warnings have been borne out: this is the pipeline that Russia is now threatening to shut down in retaliation for the sanctions. As if to reinforce its dependence, Germany commissioned a second gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, in 2005. The approval was rushed by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, just before he left office. Within weeks, he was appointed head of the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream AG, overseeing the construction of the pipeline. He then joined the boards of several Gazprom companies and became chairman of Rosneft, the Russian state oil company.
Why does Germany need Russian gas so badly? Partly because in 2011, after the Fukushima disaster, the federal government decided to shut down all its nuclear power plants, due to the risk of a tsunami in Bavaria. Shutting down nuclear power is to Germany what Brexit is to the UK: an act of needless self-harm, driven by misinformation and irrational assignment of blame.
Within two months of this decision, Gazprom and the German company RWE signed a memorandum of understanding. He said that “in light of recent decisions by the German government to reduce its nuclear power programs, we see good prospects for the construction of new, modern gas-fired power plants in Germany.” In 2019, Angela Merkel explained to the World Economic Forum: “We will have phased out nuclear energy by 2022. We have a very difficult problem… we cannot do without basic energy. Natural gas will therefore play a more important role for a few more decades…it is perfectly clear that we will continue to source natural gas from Russia. Germany now depends on Russia for 49% of its gas supply.
Technically and politically, it seems too late to reverse this crazy decision, which replaced a low-carbon source of electricity with a high-carbon one. As a result of this piled-up nonsense, Russia doesn’t have to go to war with Germany to inflict mortal damage. Just turn off the gas.
A similar dependency plagues much of Europe, which collectively receives 41% of its gas imports and 27% of its oil imports from Russia, as well as almost half of its imported coal. While our government has promised to phase out Russian oil by the end of 2022, this year alone the UK is likely to fund its war machine to the tune of £2bn in payments for liquefied gas.
Gas and oil, and the banks that finance them, are among the Russian companies that have not been sanctioned by the EU, UK and US, despite representing, by far, Russia’s most important source of foreign currency. Why not? Because we have reduced ourselves to cowardly dependence on this despotic government, through a dismal failure to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. While we harshly condemn Vladimir Putin, we quietly slip him the money needed to support his atrocities in Ukraine. Like a ruthless pusher, he exploits our addiction.
Even before the invasion of Ukraine, Europe was experiencing a gas crisis and households faced skyrocketing heating bills. Today we have a gasstrophe. We are lucky in one respect only: that Putin invaded Ukraine in the spring rather than the fall. We now have until October – when significant heating demand resumes – to implement the comprehensive energy transition that should have happened years ago.
Can we do it so quickly? Yes. When governments want to act, they can do so forcefully and effectively. When the United States joined World War II, it transitioned from a largely civilian economy to a military economy over a similar period. Manufacturing, services, administration: everything has been completely reorganized. Almost everyone, in one way or another, was mobilized to support the war effort. The federal government spent more money between 1942 and 1945 than it made between 1789 and 1941. With similar determination and resources, rolling out a massive program of home insulation, heat pumps, renewable energy, public transport and other mature technologies, we could transform from a high-carbon to a low-carbon economy just as quickly and decisively.
And, perhaps, go further. On the promise of scientific discovery that was only three years old, in late 1941 President Roosevelt approved a strategic program to develop two entirely new technologies. Both were delivered in less than four years. That it’s nightmarish technologies (detonating and imploding nuclear weapons) doesn’t detract from the principle: when governments use their power, the old rules that were supposed to determine what is possible no longer apply. I wonder what would happen if governments invested similar resources and political will in the development of softer nuclear technologies, including new designs for small modular reactors and the fusion program. I suspect things could change with extraordinary speed.
The steps needed to prevent environmental catastrophe are the same steps needed to free us from dependence on autocratic governments and ecocidal corporations that control the world’s fossil fuels. Starve the Russian military machine of funds, prevent the collapse of life on Earth: we can do both at the same time. so what are we waiting for?