Kerry to Russia: Don't use energy as a weapon in Ukraine crisis

Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed support Wednesday for a more diverse European energy supply as a response to Russia over the Ukraine crisis. Some have called for the US to wield its own 'energy weapon,' but the Obama administration has focused more on European solutions.

Yves Logghe/AP
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, right, and US Secretary of State John Kerry speak at a summit in Brussels on Wednesday. Expanded US oil and gas exports may contribute to a longer-term European strategy, but the Obama administration is unlikely to make a flashy show of any energy weapon.

As NATO officials warned of Russia's continued military presence along Ukraine's eastern border Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Brussels condemning another kind of force Moscow wields in Europe.

Russia's decades-old dominance of European energy markets has long concerned Western leaders, who view the lack of supply diversity as a security threat. The Ukraine crisis, which stems from a history of natural-gas disputes between Russia and Ukraine, has invigorated long-standing efforts to reduce oil and gas consumption and find alternative suppliers.

Mr. Kerry met with his European counterpart Catherine Ashton in Brussels Wednesday to reaffirm US support for those efforts, and condemned the use of energy as a weapon. Some have called on the US to respond to Russia in kind by expanding US oil and gas exports to Europe. But the Obama administration is unlikely to make a flashy show of any energy weapon in the short term. 

"No nation should use energy to stymie a people’s aspirations," Kerry said Wednesday. "It should not be used as a weapon. It’s in the interest of all of us to be able to have adequate energy supplies critical to our economies, critical to our security, critical to the prosperity of our people." 

At Wednesday's meeting of the EU-US Energy Council, European and American officials outlined steps they would take "in order to make it far more difficult for people to deploy that [energy] tool," as Kerry put it in remarks after the meeting. US gas exports are one of those steps, Kerry said, but there's plenty Europe can do in the immediate future to secure its energy and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The European Union's energy infrastructure is not as integrated as the name suggests. Politics and economics have stood in the way of better connecting pipelines and power grids among EU nations. Last month, the European Council prioritized the completion of a comprehensive internal energy market in Europe by the end of the year. The expansion of a broader, smarter power grid in Europe would help EU countries use energy more efficiently, officials said Wednesday, and facilitate moving excess resources in one country to where they are lacking.

"[W]e have done a lot over these years to try and enhance energy security, in particular to integrate the European Union's single internal energy market but more must and will be done," Ms. Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, said Wednesday. 

That would be particularly useful for Ukraine, which currently gets half of its natural gas through pipelines that flow east from Russia. On Tuesday, Moscow canceled the deal it brokered with Ukraine last fall for discounted gas, and there's concern it might shut off the supplies completely if tensions continue to escalate. 

By November, Ukraine could offset 7 billion cubic meters of the roughly 28 billion cubic meters of gas it buys directly from Russia annually by importing gas via Slovakia, according to Carlos Pascual, the State Department's special energy envoy. That could eventually increase to 15 billion cubic meters a year, Mr. Pascual said at an event in Brussels last month, as reported by The Wall Street Journal

"[W]e’re working in lock-step to help Ukraine bring natural gas in from Poland and Hungary and develop a route through Slovakia. Ukraine is committed to do its part," Ashton said after the meeting.

Kerry also backed Ukraine's efforts to reform a broken energy subsidies scheme that encourages waste and corruption. On Monday, Ukraine's interim government agreed to raise its domestic natural gas prices as part of a financial aid package from the International Monetary Fund.

The release of this week's report on global warming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also weighed on Wednesday's meeting. Officials sought to include renewed energy security efforts as a broader part of Europe's ambitious goals to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. More efficient energy use, the deployment of renewable energy systems, and the development of energy-storage technologies can simultaneously enhance European security while mitigating the effects of climate change, officials said.

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