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Do Germans Fear Russia More Than Rising Temperatures?

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Do Germans Fear Russia More Than Rising Temperatures?

Yeatman Op-Ed in the Richmond Times Dispatch

Seventeen years ago, post-Soviet Russia was a geopolitical doormat,
too poor and weak to exert much influence beyond its borders. This
month, at an international summit in Romania, Russia intimidated
Western Europe into scuttling a proposal for NATO expansion. Historically, only war has caused rapid, profound shifts in the European balance of power.

Russia’s rise, however, has a less malignant, if more bizarre, origin: German environmentalism.

Two
decades of the world’s most stringent environmental regulations have
made Germany, Europe’s largest economy, increasingly energy dependent
on Russia, the world’s largest exporter of natural gas. That’s how
Russian President Vladimir Putin persuaded a coalition of West European
nations to oppose a proposal that would have expanded NATO, despite the fact that Russia isn’t even a member of the trans-Atlantic military alliance.

In
the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Germany’s electricity
sector enjoyed energy independence, thanks to extensive coal reserves
and a large nuclear industry. In the time since, coal and nuclear power
have fallen afoul of the environmental movement, their regulatory
burden has increased, and they have gone into decline.

Coal
has been targeted because its combustion releases the most greenhouse
gas of any fossil fuel and Germany is a global leader in the rush to
“do something” about climate change. In 1995, it passed sweeping
emissions reductions into law, and the German legislature adopted the
Kyoto Protocol in 2002. In this regulatory environment, investment in
new coal-fired power plants is unthinkable.

Nuclear power
emits zero greenhouse gas, but most environmentalists oppose it because
the waste it produces is difficult to store. In 2000, they prevailed
upon the German government to issue a moratorium on new nuclear power
plants. By 2022, nuclear will have been phased out.

Coal and
nuclear power may have become unfashionable, but Germans still needed
electricity. Like every nation, Germany aspires to economic growth,
which requires ever more energy.

Natural gas was well
positioned to pick up the slack left by coal and nuclear. It’s cleaner
than coal, yet less expensive than solar or wind power, so it has
become the fuel of choice for power generation in Germany. Since 1990,
natural gas’ share of the German electricity market has more than
doubled, from 7 percent to 16 percent.

In fact, Germany
could have supplied much of its own natural gas needs with domestic
reserves from the northwestern state of Niedersachsen, home to 9
trillion cubic feet of gas. However, this energy is off-limits because
environmental regulations have curtailed the complete exploration and
development of the area.

Instead, Germany has met its
growing demand with natural gas imports from Gazprom, a state-owned
enterprise that has a legal monopoly on all natural gas exports from
Russia. Imports have skyrocketed since the Cold War, and Russia now
supplies more than 40 percent of German gas consumption.

German
demand for Russian gas is likely to continue to increase as a result of
the European Union’s new climate plan, which will provide a big
economic incentive to close down older coal-fired power plants rather
than maintain them. Gazprom is positioning itself to meet growing
German demand by building the Northern Pipeline, which will link
Russian gas directly to Central European markets.

Of course,
economic power translates seamlessly into political power; accordingly,
German diplomacy reflects an increasing awareness of Russia’s needs and
wants. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the first head of state to
pay a visit to Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev. And at the
Romanian summit last week, German diplomats took an early lead in
orchestrating opposition to President Bush’s proposal for NATO expansion.

The
German public understands the dangers of energy dependence on Russia.
It’s no secret that Gazprom can be the Kremlin’s cudgel. Last October,
Gazprom warned it would cut gas supplies to the Ukraine after a
pro-Russia candidate lost a major election. To be sure, Gazprom had
legitimate issues with the Ukraine over past debts, but these problems
had been simmering for months, so the timing of the warning was widely
interpreted as a thinly veiled threat.

Perhaps Germans fear
Russia more than rising temperatures. A national debate has started on
energy security, and there has even been talk of a coal revival in
Germany, irrespective of the impact on climate change. In the end, the
German people will have to decide what they are willing to sacrifice
for a cleaner environment. After all, there’s no such thing as a free
lunch.