Amos Hochstein, President Joe Biden’s point man for global energy problems, says he knows that transitioning away from the climate-wrecking pollution of fossil fuels is the only way to go. He advocates urgently for renewable energy, for energy-smart thermostats and heat pumps. But when it comes to tackling the pressing energy challenges presented by Russia’s war on Ukraine, Hochstein also can sound like nothing as much as the West’s oilfield roustabout, taking a giant pipe wrench to the world’s near-crisis-level energy shortfalls. Appearing before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee this month on U.S. help in Europe’s Russian-fueled energy problems, Hochstein spoke enthusiastically of prospects for a new floating natural gas terminal in Albania, new gas connections elsewhere in the Balkans, bumping up the flow of gas from Central Asia and getting gas out of Spain to the rest of Europe. “We have to face the reality that today Europe’s system is dependent on gas,” Hochstein told the AP after the hearing. It was a relatively rare public account from an envoy whose work normally is behind the scenes. “And I need to make sure that people in the winter have heating, and they have electricity." Read: EXPLAINER: What’s next after Russia reduced gas to Europe? Increasingly, however, some climate advocates are expressing concern at what they see as an emphasis from the Biden administration on new, U.S.-heavy natural gas and infrastructure projects as part of an all-out effort by Europe and the U.S. to wrest Europe away from its reliance on Russian oil and gas. Climate groups charge that new spending on building pipelines, terminals, port facilities and storage threatens to lock in increased reliance on fossil fuel for decades to come, while doing little to solve Europe’s most immediate energy crisis. Criticism increased Tuesday, after Biden and other leaders in the Group of Seven softened their 2021 climate pledges to move away from public financing of new fossil fuel infrastructure, citing Russia’s war. “Public support for gas infrastructure is not the climate presidency Joe Biden promised,” Kate DeAngelis, international finance program manager of Friends of the Earth, said in a statement in response. But as U.S. companies have nearly tripled America's exports of liquified natural gas to Europe in the months since Russia invaded Ukraine, Hochstein cites his immediate challenge: getting Europeans through the end of the year without freezing in their homes. The European Union received roughly 40% of its natural gas from Russia before the war. Western-led sanctions and Russian cutoffs, as well as Europe's major switch to non-Russian suppliers, are depriving Europe of Russian natural gas. Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike welcomed Hochstein's efforts to decouple Europe from Russian pipelines, and asked for more. Climate change and clean energy are “important challenges,” Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, chair of the Europe and Regional Security Cooperation panel where Hochstein appeared, told the AP. “But I think our No. 1 priority here needs to be to defeat Putin and help Ukraine.” The Biden administration has struggled to ease two problems simultaneously: a global energy crunch and a rapidly heating Earth. The shortfalls in oil and gas supplies are creating problems for European and Asian allies that if left unaddressed could threaten the united economic front against Russian President Vladimir Putin. At home, the energy shortfall is contributing to high gasoline prices, inflation and discontent that threatens Democrats in November's midterm elections and Biden's reelection down the road. But at the same time, scientists, climate advocates and the Biden administration itself say global governments are counting down the time in the last few years left to stave off the more devastating scenarios of climate change. The rate at which the world now burns through oil, natural gas and coal gives humans a 50-50 chance of blasting through the hoped-for maximum average temperatures targeted in the Paris climate accord within five years, the World Meteorological Organization said last month. Some climate advocates fear the current energy shortfalls have Biden and other world leaders reverting to an oil and gas drill-and-build outlook they'd sworn off in the name of climate change, despite Biden's climate efforts elsewhere. Many were dismayed by the joint declaration this week from Biden and other leaders in the G-7 club of wealthy democracies that it was once again OK for governments to invest in gas infrastructure as a “temporary response.” A dangerous move, and an unnecessary one, climate advocates said of the G-7's climate step back. “New funding for fossil fuel exploration and production infrastructure is delusional,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tweeted after the G-7 statement. “Fossil fuels are not the answer. Renewable energy is.” Read: Russia confirms halt of gas supply to Finland Climate advocates are wary of what they see as Hochstein's support of some infrastructure projects in Europe for liquified natural gas. Friends of the Earth points to his oil and gas industry ties. Those include his serving as a senior vice president for Houston-based LNG exporter Tellurian and as an advisory board member for Ukraine's state-owned Naftogaz, before resigning in 2020 to protest corruption he outlined in a newspaper column. In Hochstein's government position, Biden has entrusted him with top policy missions, including working with oil giant Saudi Arabia at a time of frosty relations. Hochstein described the U.S.-backed LNG buildout in Europe as essential to blocking Russia from wielding power over Europe's energy and economy. “Unfortunately, we don't have the clean infrastructure to replace natural gas in the short- or medium-term,” Hochstein told the AP. “So that is a tough and difficult balance to have. But that is what we're committed to. “And I agree with all those who say this only strengthens the absolute need to accelerate the energy transition” from oil and gas, he added. Energy experts with environmental groups say there are cleaner ways to break from Russian gas. Moving faster to curb gas flaring and venting by the energy industry, and plug natural gas leaks — both things the Biden administration already has pledged to work on — could get fast results without damaging the climate further, said Mark Brownstein, a senior vice president for energy at the Environmental Defense Fund. Brownstein pointed to an International Energy Agency finding that the fossil fuel industry leaked or otherwise wasted more natural gas last year than all the gas used across Europe's power sector. Natural gas is mostly methane. Methane from agriculture and fossil fuels alone drives about a quarter of all climate damage. David Kieve, president of the Environmental Defense Fund's advocacy arm, said the days have “come and gone” from when natural gas could be considered a “bridge fuel.” He was director of public engagement at the White House's Council on Environmental Quality in Biden's first year. "I think there’s an understanding that we need to go even much much faster.”
European Union energy ministers will meet Monday to discuss Russia’s decision to cut gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland, and debate planned new sanctions over Moscow’s war on Ukraine. The 27 nation-bloc has imposed five rounds of sanctions on Russian officials, oligarchs, banks, companies and other organizations since Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February. The European Commission is working on a sixth round of measures which could include oil restrictions, but Russia-dependent countries like Hungary and Slovakia are wary of taking tough action. Germany believes it could cope if supplies of Russian oil were cut off due to an embargo or action by Moscow. Economy Minister Robert Habeck said that Russian oil now accounts for 12% of total imports, down from 35% before the war, and most of it goes to the Schwedt refinery near Berlin. Habeck acknowledged that losing those supplies could result in a “bumpy” situation for the capital and surrounding region, with price hikes and shortages, but that wouldn’t result in Germany “slipping into an oil crisis.” Also Read: Russia cuts off 2 EU nations from its gas in war escalation Still, Habeck added, “other countries aren’t so far yet and I think that needs to be respected.” The commission, the EU’s executive branch, could announce it new sanction proposals later this week. The measures would have to be approved by the member countries - a process that can take several days. The energy ministers will also look at what steps to take should Russia ramp up its pressure by cutting gas supplies to other countries. The EU imports around 40% of the gas it consumes from Russia, but some member countries are more heavily dependent on Russian supplies than others. In a move last week branded in Europe as “blackmail,” Russian energy giant Gazprom cut supplies to Bulgaria and Poland. It came after Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “unfriendly” countries must start paying for gas in rubles, Russia’s currency. Also Read: EU prepared for Russian gas cut off: von-der-leyen Bulgaria and Poland have refused to do so, like most EU countries. More Gazprom bills are due on May 20, and the bloc is wary that Russia might turn off more taps then. Russia rejects the claims of blackmail and says that Bulgaria and Poland missed their payment deadlines. The commission has warned that companies which comply with the terms of Putin’s decree insisting that companies convert euros to rubles through two accounts at Gazprombank would contravene the bloc’s sanctions. Despite the pressure, Europe does have some leverage in the dispute since it pays Russia $400 million a day for gas, a huge dent in Moscow’s coffers should it opt for a complete cutoff. Off the Dutch North Sea coast, meanwhile, a fuel tanker stood idle at anchor after port workers in Amsterdam said they would not unload its cargo of Russian diesel. The Marshall Islands-flagged Sunny Liger was initially scheduled to unload in Sweden, but dockers there refused to carry out the work. Dutch port employees who are members of the FNV dockers’ union say they also refused to unload the tanker out of solidarity with their Swedish colleagues. Union spokeswoman Asmae Hajjari told NOS Radio 1 over the weekend that “the ship is not welcome.”
European leaders blasted Russia’s decision to cut natural gas shipments to Poland and Bulgaria as “blackmail,” saying the cutoff and the Kremlin’s warning that it might cease shipments to other countries is a failed attempt to divide the West over its support for Ukraine. Russia’s move Wednesday to use its most essential export as leverage marked a dramatic escalation in the economic war of sanctions and countersanctions that has unfolded in parallel to the fighting on the battlefield. The tactic against the two EU and NATO members could eventually force targeted nations to ration gas and deal another blow to economies suffering from rising prices. At the same time, it could deprive Russia of badly needed income to fund its war effort. Poland has been a major gateway for the delivery of weapons to Ukraine and confirmed this week that it is sending the country tanks. Just hours before Russia’s state energy giant Gazprom acted, Poland announced a new set of sanctions against the company and other Russian businesses and oligarchs. Also read:A chilling Russian cyber aim in Ukraine: Digital dossiers Bulgaria, under a new liberal government that took office last fall, has cut many of its old ties to Moscow and likewise supported punitive measures against the Kremlin. It has also hosted Western fighter jets at a new NATO outpost on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. The gas cuts do not immediately put the two countries in any dire trouble. Poland, especially, has been working for many years to line up other suppliers, and the continent is heading into summer, making gas less essential for households. Also, Russian gas deliveries to both Poland and Bulgaria were expected to end later this year anyway. Still, the cutoff and the Kremlin warning that other countries could be next sent shivers of worry through the 27-nation European Union. Germany, the largest economy on the continent, and Italy are among Europe’s biggest consumers of Russian natural gas, though they, too, have been taking steps to reduce their dependence on Moscow. “It comes as no surprise that the Kremlin uses fossil fuels to try to blackmail us,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “Today, the Kremlin failed once again in his attempt to sow division amongst member states. The era of Russian fossil fuel in Europe is coming to an end.” Gazprom said it shut off the two countries because they refused to pay in rubles, as President Vladimir Putin has demanded of “unfriendly” nations. The Kremlin said other countries may be cut off if they don’t agree to the payment arrangement. Most European countries have publicly balked at Russia’s demand for rubles, but it is not clear how many have actually faced the moment of decision so far. Greece’s next scheduled payment to Gazprom is due on May 25, for example, and the government must decide then whether to comply. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told his country’s parliament that he believes Poland’s support for Ukraine — and the new sanctions imposed by Warsaw on Tuesday — were the real reasons behind the gas cutoff. Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov called the suspension blackmail, adding: “We will not succumb to such a racket.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Russia views gas as a weapon for political blackmail and “sees a united Europe as a target.” On the battlefield, fighting continued in the country’s east along a largely static front line some 300 miles (480 kilometers) long. Russia claimed its missiles hit a batch of weapons that the U.S. and European nations had delivered to Ukraine. One person was killed and at least two were injured when rockets hit a residential neighborhood in Kharkiv. Western officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence findings, said Russia has made slow progress in the eastern Donbas region, with “minor gains,” including the capture of villages and small towns south of Izyum and on the outskirts of Rubizhne. Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, conceded that Russia has made some progress in its advance on Rubizhne through its nearly constant bombardment, but that Ukrainian troops are fighting back and retreating only when there is nothing left to defend. “There is no point in staying on territory that has been fired on so often that every meter is well known,” he said. Maxim, a Ukrainian tank commander in the Donbas who didn’t give his last name, offered his rationale for why Ukrainian forces have been able to hold back the better-equipped Russian army: “The strength is not in the tank; the strength is in the people.” The Western officials said some Russian troops have been shifted from the gutted southern port city of Mariupol to other parts of the Donbas. But some remain in Mariupol to fight Ukrainian forces holed up at the Azovstal steel plant, the last stronghold in the city. About 1,000 civilians were said to be taking shelter there with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian defenders. Also read:EU prepared for Russian gas cut-off: von der Leyen “The situation is very difficult. There are huge problems with water, food,” Serhii Volynskyi, commander of the marine unit inside the plant, said in a Facebook video message. He said hundreds of fighters and civilians were wounded and in need of medical help, and those inside included children, older people and disabled people. In the Black Sea port city of Kherson, which Russian forces have occupied since early in the war, a series of explosions boomed late Wednesday near the television tower and at least temporarily knocked Russian channels off the air, Ukrainian and Russian news organizations reported. Just across the border from the Donbas in Russia, an ammunition depot in the Belgorod region burned after several explosions were heard, the governor said. Blasts were also reported in Russia’s Kursk region near the border, and authorities in Russia’s Voronezh region said an air defense system shot down a drone. Earlier this week, an oil storage facility in the Russian city of Bryansk was engulfed by fire. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak hinted at the country’s involvement in the fires, saying in a Telegram post that “karma (is) a harsh thing.” With the help of Western arms, Ukrainian forces managed to thwart Russian forces’ attempt to storm Kyiv. Moscow now says its focus is the capture of the Donbas, Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking industrial heartland. A defiant Putin vowed Russia will achieve its military goals, telling parliament, “All the tasks of the special military operation we are conducting in the Donbas and Ukraine, launched on Feb. 24, will be unconditionally fulfilled.”
The European Union (EU) is ready to face the suspension of Russian gas deliveries to its member states, said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday. The Russian gas supplier Gazprom announced earlier Wednesday that it was fully stopping its gas deliveries to Poland and Bulgaria, due to the two EU member states' "failure to pay in rubles." Also Read: Russia cuts off 2 EU nations from its gas in war escalation In a statement reacting to Gazprom's announcement, von der Leyen called the move "another attempt by Russia to use gas as an instrument of blackmail" in the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded on March 23 that Russia's current gas contracts with "unfriendly countries" should be paid in rubles. "We have been working to ensure alternative deliveries and the best possible storage levels across the EU," and the gas coordination group is meeting in order to map out a coordinated EU response, said von der Leyen. The EU, highly dependent on Russian gas and oil, has been working on finding alternative energy supplies through its REPowerEU plan launched on March 8. The bloc agreed with the United States on March 25 that it would purchase an additional at least 15 billion cubic meters of liquified natural gas (LNG) for 2022, and 50 billion cubic meters of LNG per annum until at least 2030. Also Read: Poland, Bulgaria say Russia suspending natural gas supplies The bloc is also accelerating its green transition to wean itself from fossil fuels and to increase energy efficiency.
Ukrainian and Russian officials say final details have been worked out for a contract that will continue shipments of Russian gas to European markets.