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Russia wants roubles for its gas supplies, the EU demurs. That doesn't mean coal is in for a revival. Image Credit: Reuters

The Ukraine crisis has disrupted all sectors, starting with supply chain issues — including that related to food commodities — banking and industrial sector. The most affected, however, is the energy sector. After years of talk about moving away from oil and fossil sources, things got turned upside down pretty fast after February 24.

The countries, which led the approach in shifting away from oil, have forgotten their previous positions about combating pollution. They have not only increased their demand for oil and gas, but also turned the clock to many years ago by using coal to generate electric power.

Two years ago, the Irish government decided to stop granting new gas extraction permits and prevent the import of shale gas, while Poland and the Czech made decisions on wholesale move away from coal. According to a report by the independent energy think tank Ember, coal power generation fell 95 per cent in the first-half of 2020 in Portugal, France and Austria, the Netherlands saw a 50 per cent fall and Germany by 39 per cent. The latter had already adopted a $45 billion plan to shut down all coal-fired power plants, while Sweden closed all coal-fired power stations.

Reviving mothballed plants

After two years of this unprecedented and unified European approach to shifting from coal, these countries have taken a totally contradictory approach. Many EU countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, announced that they will revert to operating their coal-fired power plants to reduce reliance on imports of Russian gas. Or compensate for the shortage caused by Russia’s gas cuts to European countries that have not responded to its requirements, particularly the payment of purchases in rouble, such as by Poland.

Some questions arise about Europe’s approach. Can coal compensate for Russian gas imports? Can coal-fired plants meet the growing demand for electricity, particularly this winter? As for the first question, most coal plants have been shuttered in many EU countries, which in no way can offer alternatives to the relatively cheap Russian gas. This leads us to the next question regarding the increasing demand for energy sources within Europe to tackle winter needs. Alternative sources to Russian gas cannot meet this, while coal has declined its share of the energy mix. There is also the volume of pollution it causes and the increased global warming, leading to natural disasters that have caused significant losses in many countries.

Hot air over coal

If so, what is the point of this intense talk about a return to the coal age? This followed the decline in US gas exports to the EU due to worries about shortages to its own domestic supplies, which has caused high prices and sparked grumbling among US consumers. It means the excessive promotion of coal is only to ease hopes earlier pinned on US gas imports, and more of a propaganda rather than a practical alternative to severe gas shortages and which will cause severe damage to European economies.

As part of the Europe’s talk about coal replacements, Russia took practical and propaganda measures at the same time. First, it announced a cut in gas supplies to Europe through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline for technical reasons. It then returned to announce the complete shutting of the pipeline from July 11 due to annual maintenance.

The German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said he feared a complete cut-off of Russian gas imports, adding the “technical problem with the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline reported by Russia is merely a pretext to cut gas supplies.” It seems the two sides are playing a Tom & Jerry game, Russia knows well EU countries cannot survive without its gas, though the EU is trying to prove otherwise. Therefore, psychological warfare plays a role in an attempt to influence policies that are clear to all sides.