Just as Russia invaded Ukraine, I happened to be reading the chapter about Ukraine in Simon Winchester’s book, “Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World.” It’s called “Death on the Rich Black Earth” and describes how as many as ten million people died of starvation in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union under Stalin’s forced collectivization scheme.
That’s quite a legacy, and Russia’s current ruler, Vladimir Putin, seems to want to relive the past.
First, let me give honor to the thousands of Russians who took to the streets to condemn their own country’s actions across the border. At least a few thousand have already been arrested, and I’m guessing their sojourn in custody will not be pleasant.
Second, note the latest report released Feb. 28 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It gives context to my comments below and paints a grim –even apocalyptic — picture of our climate future as United Nations General Secretary Antonio Guterres condemns “the biggest polluters guilty of arson on our only home.” Undiplomatic language from the world’s top diplomat only underscores the crisis.
On the first night of the assault, I saw a commentator on Fox explaining why Putin didn’t invade while Donald Trump was President – one of the reasons given was that Trump’s policies aggressively promoted U.S. fossil energy production and export, thus reducing Europe’s dependence on Russia’s oil and gas.
I have been working for the past seven years toward the goal of eliminating coal, oil and gas (methane) production in the U.S., so I vehemently disagreed with Trump’s policies, but the commentator’s remarks highlight dirty energy’s role in geopolitics.
Germany stopped certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia in response to Russia’s aggression, but the chief executive of the German utility Uniper said that, even without that pipeline in operation, half of Germany’s gas in January came from Russia. Russia supplies 30 percent of gas to Europe overall.
Russia’s economy is based on the export of oil and gas, which accounts for 40% of its federal budget. Oil and gas make up 60% of Russia’s exports. Big oil companies like Exxon, BP and Shell all work with Putin-controlled Rosneft and Gazprom, the Russian state oil and gas companies, respectively. Former ExxonMobil CEO (and former Trump Secretary of State) Rex Tillerson has had an especially close relationship with Putin.
With gas supplies reduced, Germany may have to revert to more coal burning, which is terrible for the climate and also deadly because of its toxic air emissions. And U.S. companies and many politicians are calling for even more U.S. production and export of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
There are currently seven LNG export terminals in the U.S., four of them along a small stretch of the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast. Twenty more have been approved by FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency – a conservative body established in the wake of the oil crisis of 1973 – said in May of last year that to prevent a true climate catastrophe, there should be no new fossil fuel projects after 2021.
But there’s another possible outcome: that the conflict will encourage the growth of renewable energy. According to Inside Climate News, “As stocks plummeted on Thursday in reaction to Russia’s invasion, the European Renewable Energy Index surged as much as 9.3 percent. It was the biggest stock jump since the pandemic lows of March 2020 and posed a stark contrast to the European market’s collapse.In the United States, individual renewable energy companies also saw massive gains. When the market closed Thursday, the stock price for Sunrun Inc., an American company that provides residential solar panels and batteries, had skyrocketed nearly 22 percent. Conversely, stocks for oil majors like BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil all remain down after a major price drop on Wednesday.”
Then there is the legacy of another form of toxic energy, the shuttered but still radioactive Chernobyl nuclear plant complex, which the Russian military apparently now controls. The thought of a nuclear incident – there or at one of Ukraine’s four remaining nuclear power plants – should give us all pause.
Militaries around the world – with the U.S. far in the lead – consume vast amounts of oil and gas even in peacetime, and a war greatly increases that consumption, with dire consequences for the climate. An additional benefit of growing our global renewables is that no one will be dependent on another country for energy that comes with the deadly baggage we’re seeing right now.
Melinda Tuhus lives in Hamden.