Trump’s coal advocacy is a blessing in disguise for Europe’s energy security

Trump’s coal advocacy is a blessing in disguise for Europe’s energy security
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After three-quarters of a century, Poland is ready to cut its dependence on Russian natural gas. Warsaw, which gets almost two-thirds of its gas from Russia, has decided not to renew a long-term contract with Gazprom ending in 2022. Poland will partially compensate the loss with gas from other sources such as the United States and Norway, but coal, which generates around 80 percent of Poland’s electricity, will have to help make up the rest.

This has ruffled feathers in Brussels, raising concerns about the balance between energy independence and climate targets creating new divisions within the European Union. Curiously enough, Donald Trump’s advocacy for promoting clean coal energy — although contrary to the European Union’s ambitious efforts to increase the share of renewable energy — might emerge as a potential medium-term solution.  

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At the Bonn climate summit, the President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE proposed a clean coal alliance of countries such as India and China seeking to reduce the carbon footprint of their fossil fuel plants. Poland and Ukraine quickly expressed interest, drawn by promises of bolstering ties with Washington and reducing their dependence on Russia’s energy resources.

 

The geopolitics of coal

The current debates over how to secure clean, safe energy throughout the European Union come at a particularly difficult time for the bloc. Almost three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the continent’s future once again is challenged in the East. Poland, which will become the EU’s seventh-largest economy post-Brexit, increasingly is engulfed with Euroscepticism. Once considered an exemplary state for its successful post-communist reconstruction and its enthusiastic embrace of liberal democratic values, Poland is plagued by rising right-wing sentiment, political disagreements with Brussels, and threats from the Russian leadership.

Meanwhile, fellow post-Soviet nation Ukraine has become an actual battleground, its strategic geopolitical location coveted by the Kremlin’s strategists. It has struggled to put in place lasting economic and political reforms and to effectively combat corruption.

The revolutionary euphoria that was so prevalent right after the Maidan has vanished. Economic “growth” is limited to a pitiful rebound after 17 percent slump in 2014-2015, while reforms are blocked by the fruitless struggle between powerful cliques of oligarchs and politicians. The recent decision to deport Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's former president and an outspoken critic of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, further raises concerns that the country cannot escape its troubled past.

While these difficulties are sowing seeds of discord in Eastern Europe, concerns about energy independence are adding fuel to the fire. The Kremlin is notorious for methodically weaponizing its energy exports in attempts to influence Eastern European politics. The quintessential example of this strategy is Russia’s transit disputes with Ukraine, a major hub for Russian gas deliveries to the European Union. Since the occupied Donbass region supplies almost 15 percent of the country’s coal, energy independence tops the agenda of local decision-makers. Naftogaz of Ukraine plan to resume purchasing gas from Gazprom, combined with decreasing support for Poroshenko in Brussels and Washington, may spell the end of Kiev’s quest for reforms.

Poland may not have been through as many recent ordeals as Ukraine, but its geopolitical strategies are influenced by its neighbor’s travails. Despite the decision not to renew Gazprom’s contract, Warsaw has a long way to go to achieve energy independence.

Warsaw signed onto the Paris Agreement, but few members of its local political elite share Western enthusiasm for the accord’s ambitious renewable energy objectives. Green economy targets risk being sidelined in Poland by the pressing security threats due to the Kremlin’s unpredictable leadership. The European Union’s commitment to renewable energy, intended to move the continent towards a clean energy future, is tossed aside by a Polish government haunted by painful recollections of the Soviet era and first and foremost preoccupied with energy security.

This focus on energy security means that Poland remains — and will remain in the immediate future — despite significant progress in developing renewables, heavily dependent on coal. It shouldn’t be any surprise, then, that Warsaw welcomed the European Commission’s decision to allow state aid for fossil fuel plants.

The clean coal alliance

However, since debate over whether to prioritize renewable energy or energy security is driving a wedge between Brussels and Eastern Europe, Poland and Ukraine are finding support for their security concerns in Washington, particularly with increasing reports of the White House supporting a global pro-coal alliance. Given commitments by Warsaw and Kiev to enhance their collaboration with outside partners on achieving energy independence and acquiring technology to launch a competitive coal sector, America’s help might come right on time.

Kiev’s decision to import 700,000 tons of thermal coal from the United States is a step in the right direction. Work remains to be done, however, to craft more agreements between Eastern Europe and the United States, as well as to promote the sharing of advanced coal technologies.  

Brussels often tries to push a single solution for all member states. In the energy sector, this ignores constantly widening divisions. Sweden acquires half of its energy from renewables and plans to be carbon-free by 2045, while Poland thinks that even its target of 15 percent by 2020 may be too ambitious. Each member state has its own energy needs and resources that provoke these divergences. When envisioning the continent’s common future, it is vital to take an impartial look at its diversity of challenges, and objectively acknowledge geopolitical threats to develop appropriate solutions.

Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a political analyst and independent journalist based in Moscow. He is a consultant on policy and strategy in the Middle East and Central Asia with private entities, and has written about Russia’s foreign policy toward the Gulf Cooperation Council states and former Soviet territories.