BRUSSELS – Has the “energy weapon” of the 1970’s – the withholding of energy supplies for political ends – returned? Using oil or gas as a political weapon is easier said than done, of course, but this year’s renewal of the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute, and the resulting cut-off of supplies to much of the European Union, should concentrate minds on the EU’s need to disarm those who would use the energy weapon.
As a long-term strategy, energy embargoes have always proven to be futile. Saudi Arabia saw its share of world oil exports drop sharply in the 12 years after the 1973-1974 embargo. The huge price rises of the 1970’s became unsustainable because they drove governments in Europe and elsewhere to protect their consumers through higher oil taxes, conservation, and expansion of non-OPEC oil production.
Europe cannot afford to let this history make it complacent. In the wake of the repeated Russia-Ukraine dispute, indeed, Europe must react with the same decisiveness to diversify its energy supplies that it demonstrated in the 1970’s in meeting OPEC’s challenge. As with the Middle Eastern countries, only bitter experience will teach Russia that secure energy supplies are in everyone's interest. The Kremlin will learn that lesson only if Europe designs, adopts, and sticks to an energy strategy that lessens its dependence on Russian supplies and builds its own common foreign policy on energy security, as recommended by the European Parliament's 2007 report.
Gas is arguably more vulnerable than oil to unforeseen supply interruptions. Oil is reasonably easy to trade globally in maritime tankers, whereas in most gas markets the fixed pipeline between gas field and gas burner locks producers and consumers in an exclusive embrace. One task facing Europe now is to make that Russian bear hug less exclusive, which will require a coordinated and sustained effort between the EU’s member states and their neighbors on the question of external energy security.