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Why it’s tough to wean the West off Russian oil and gas

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Aerial Image of oil tank cars on rail tracks on the outskirts of the Siberian town of Tobolsk.

Russia is the main supplier of natural gas and oil to the European Union. Above, oil tank cars on rail tracks near the Siberian town of Tobolsk. Andrei Borodulin/AFP Getty Images

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For all the talk of energy independence, the West still buys a lot of Russian oil and gas. Energy markets are global, and any disruptions will have costs.

About 40% of the European Union’s natural gas comes from Russia. According to Anne-Sophie Corbeau at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy, the EU has known for a while that this is a problem, but hasn’t done anything about it.

“For the past 15 years, we have been talking about diminishing our reliance on Russian gas. And this has not happened,” Corbeau said.

She said a moment of crisis like this could lead to some movement. But Nikos Tsafos at the Center for Strategic and International Studies thinks that part of the problem is that there’s an expectation that the West can just turn off the Russian energy pipe. 

“The reality is that it’s really difficult to overhaul an energy system overnight. You just can’t,” Tsafos said. The questions Western leaders need to be asking is how to make incremental changes right now, he said.

“Can you do that by asking industrial consumers to use less? Could you find additional supply from other sources in a way that doesn’t derail your decarbonization plans?” he said.

It’s not just Europe relying on Russian natural resources. Energy Information Administration data shows that Russia supplied about 7% of U.S. crude oil imports at the end of last year. The U.S occasionally buys Russian gas, too.

“There are times in New England because of pipeline bottlenecks that it’s actually been more efficient and cheaper for New England to import Russian [liquified natural gas],” said Ellen R. Wald, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center.

Joshua Rhodes, an energy research associate at the University of Texas at Austin said there are ways the West can minimize how much oil and gas it gets from Russia, but any disruption to the status quo is going to come with costs to consumers.

“We’re attuned to the oil markets whether we knew it or not. And so any uncertainty or contraction in the supply of oil in the global markets will lead to a higher cost of gasoline at the pump, and, you know, that’ll hit people’s pocket,” Rhodes said.

The average cost of a gallon of gas right now is $3.54, up almost a dollar from this time last year.

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