On October 18, the Guardian announced that the BBC had prepared “secret scripts” ahead of time to “reassure the public in the event that a ‘major loss of power’ causes mobile phone networks, internet access, banking systems or traffic lights to fail across England, Wales and Scotland.” The prospect of winter blackouts caused the National Grid to issue a rare warning of blackouts lasting up to three days, and the BBC to plan ahead for different scenarios to be read over emergency broadcasts.
National Grid chief executive John Pettigrew warned of rolling blackouts between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. on “really, really cold” days in January and February, should generators not be able to secure enough natural gas when wind speeds during a cold snap were too low to power turbines.
Meanwhile, Germany’s Energiewende policy to close all nuclear power plants was put on a very temporary hold. Germany’s last two remaining nuclear plants, which were scheduled to close at year’s end, have been given a reprieve till April 2023, to be kept on standby for energy security.
Incidentally, New England’s grid operator is also warning of potential blackouts this winter, owing to tighter competition for shipments of natural gas and the fact that pipeline infrastructure New England needs has been blocked.
In terms of energy needs and prices, the coming winter months are expected to be especially harsh for Europeans. The problem isn’t only years of heavily subsidizing renewable sources of electricity generation, trying to force a transition away from highly efficient fossil-fuel sources of electricity. The oil and gas implications from the Russian war on Ukraine are deep and global, but worst for Europe. The European Union’s December embargo against Russian oil looms, but a bigger problem is Europe’s reliance on natural gas imports, especially from Russia. In the meantime, to keep the lights on and homes heated, Europe, despite its “green” energy aspirations, is returning to coal (for which it also overwhelmingly relies on Russia).
Energy economist Robert Bryce calls it the Iron Law of Electricity: “People, businesses, and countries will do whatever they have to do to get the electricity they need,” or restated, “When forced to choose between dirty electricity and no electricity, people will choose dirty electricity every time.” Europe is discovering, at great expense to its people, that however “green” it is, trying to get baseload generation out of intermittent, unreliable electricity sources that are wholly subject to the whims of Nature repeatedly veers into the “no electricity” realm. In deadly temperature plunges, Europe’s need for reliable electricity generation will be undeniable.
To renewable energy advocates, however, Europe’s electricity crisis is their moment. Social media channels are chockablock with this sentiment. With dependence on Russian oil and natural gas so prominent, a piece in the Guardian asserted the need to “respond with renewables,” asking readers to “imagine a Europe that ran on solar power and wind power.” A headline in Politico declared that “To Beat Putin, Europe Needs America’s Clean Energy.” Pieces in the Chicago Tribune and Rolling Stone even called clean energy the “kryptonite” to Russian gas.
Regardless, winter is coming, and with it the hard, cold reality that fickle generation sources may be zero-carbon, but they are too often also zero-electricity. The Iron Law of Electricity implies that a Europe run on solar power and wind power cannot be sustainable. Europeans will need reliable power.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t long ago that the Russian government made it very clear what checked European dependence on Russian oil and gas: greater availability of oil and natural gas thanks to fracking in the U.S. and Europe. Western leaders on the Right and Left took note of it.
In 2014, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned that the Russian government was actively working with environmentalist groups to undermine and discredit U.S. and European fracking in order to maintain Russian gas’s grip on Europe. Rasmussen warned, “I have met allies who can report that Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organizations — environmental organizations working against shale gas — to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas.”
That same year, then–US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke privately of the difficulties faced by the State Department in countering this onslaught of Russian propaganda, paid media, and (her words) “phony environmental groups” opposing fracking and building pipelines. Clinton said: “We were up against Russia pushing oligarchs and others to buy media. We were even up against phony environmental groups, and I’m a big environmentalist, but these were funded by the Russians to stand against any effort, ‘Oh that pipeline, that fracking, that whatever will be a problem for you,’ and a lot of the money supporting that message was coming from Russia.”
In 2017 U.S. intelligence reports confirmed these efforts by the Russian government were still ongoing. As described in Newsweek: “Buried within the U.S. intelligence community’s report on Russian activities in the presidential election is clear evidence that the Kremlin is financing and choreographing anti-fracking propaganda in the United States. By targeting fracking, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin hopes to increase oil and gas prices, destabilize the U.S. economy and threaten America’s energy independence.”
That last bit is a harder read in late 2022, as we recall candidate Joe Biden telling campaign audiences he would stop pipelines and fracking and that oil and gas executives should be put “in jail,” and later, President Biden on his very first day canceling Keystone XL pipeline permitting and the planned oil and gas leasing in Alaska, not to mention his baffling continued opposition to domestic oil and gas operations. As a side note, were it not for Biden, the Keystone XL pipeline would have been operational in early 2023.
Back in 2017, alarmed by those reports, Texas Republican Reps. Lamar Smith and Randy Weber wrote then–Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on behalf of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology urging an investigation into covert Russian funding of environmental organizations seeking to stop or hamstring U.S. drilling and fracking operations. Smith and Weber used publicly available documents showing that Russia was using a Bermuda-based shell company to funnel money to a U.S. nonprofit, the Sea Change Foundation, to send tens of millions of dollars to many U.S. environmental organizations “that push back on U.S. domestic fracking and gas advancements,” including the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, and National Resource Defense Council.
“The scheme described in this letter raises questions about whether these foreign entities working to influence U.S. policy are in violation of federal statutes pertaining to agents of foreign governments or those lobbying on behalf of domestic and foreign interests,” the representatives wrote, seeking an investigation into the matter.
Awaiting an investigation (that wasn’t to come) into the averred money-laundering scheme to manipulate US domestic energy policy to serve the interests of the Kremlin, the Committee launched its own investigation into an ancillary issue. In 2018, a majority staff report found that “Russian agents were exploiting American social media platforms in an effort to disrupt domestic energy markets, suppress research and development of fossil-fuels, and stymie efforts to expand the use of natural gas.” These agents, working for “the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian company based in Saint Petersburg established by the Russian government for the purpose of deceptively using various social and traditional media platforms to advance Russian propaganda,” had established thousands of accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram that “targeted pipelines, fossil fuels, climate change, and other divisive issues to influence public policy in the U.S.”
Also in 2018, in the other chamber of Congress and from the other side of the aisle, a minority staff report prepared for the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, submitted by Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, described how “Vladimir Putin’s government has engaged in a relentless assault to undermine democracy and the rule of law in Europe and the United States,” detailing how the “Kremlin employs an asymmetric arsenal that includes military invasions, cyberattacks, disinformation, support for fringe political groups, and the weaponization of energy resources, organized crime, and corruption.” According to the report, part of these machinations was making “useful idiots” (the report explicitly referenced that Soviet term for “extreme left activists and politicians in the West”) out of extreme ideological groups and nongovernmental organizations, left and right, to serve the Kremlin’s goals. It included “covert support to European environmental groups to campaign against fracking for natural gas, thereby keeping the EU more dependent upon Russian supplies.”
The headline in Politico was nearly correct. Europe needs America’s energy. So do Americans. A greater available supply of American natural gas and oil to European nations would reduce their dependence on Russian supplies. Americans would also enjoy lower oil and gas prices, more plentiful natural gas, a more robust and secure energy environment, and a more stable economy.