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There's a complication in sanctioning Russia — it could cut Europe's gas supply

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

President Biden and the president of the European Commission have promised to work together to make Europe less dependent on Russian natural gas. About a third of the European Union's gas comes from Russia. And if Russia invades Ukraine again and the EU imposes more sanctions, there's fear that Moscow could cut off supplies at a time when prices are already high. Joanna Kakissis reports.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Even during the Cold War, Russia sold gas to the rest of Europe.

DAVIDE TABARELLI: Russia has always been, for the last 50 years - half a century - a very reliable supplier of energy.

KAKISSIS: Davide Tabarelli runs an energy research company in Italy. He says Italy imported nearly 40% of its gas from Russia last year.

TABARELLI: We are talking about gas lines that were built during the Soviet era in the '50s and '60s. When you face a crisis like this one, you have no available short-term solution by definition.

KAKISSIS: Setting up alternative energy infrastructure takes time. One immediate option, burning coal, isn't popular because the EU is focused on fighting climate change. Another option is importing liquefied natural gas, or LNG. European utilities have increased their orders of LNG from Qatar, the world's biggest supplier, as well as the U.S. But available supply is limited, says Robin Mills, an energy expert in Dubai.

ROBIN MILLS: If there was a complete cutoff or a partial cutoff of Russian gas into Europe, how much of that could be compensated with LNG supplies from elsewhere? Well, yeah, a large part can be compensated, but that means somebody else has to go short.

KAKISSIS: Supply of liquefied natural gas may be an issue. But the EU has invested a lot in facilities to convert LNG back into gas. Natalia Fabra, an energy economist in Madrid, says several of these regasification plants are in Spain.

NATALIA FABRA: It's really at the head of the EU in terms of regasification capacity. It's really the gas transit country for Europe.

KAKISSIS: And if the energy crunch gets really desperate, there's also a controversial option - a huge gas field in the Netherlands.

DAVID SMEULDERS: We were actually a gas-exporting country, which made us very rich.

KAKISSIS: David Smeulders is an engineering professor at Eindhoven University of Technology. He explains that the government shut down a natural gas field because the extraction process was causing earthquakes. But, he says, Dutch gas from offshore reserves can be safely extracted. Smeulders says the EU must cut its dependency on Russian gas.

SMEULDERS: So I think in general, it's problematic to be too dependent on one supplier. You are no longer as free as you would like to choose an independent geopolitical path.

KAKISSIS: He has Germany in mind. It's heavily dependent on natural gas from Russia. What's more - the Germans are phasing out nuclear power. Fabra, the Spanish energy economist, says renewable energy is also an alternative, but the EU must speed up building infrastructure.

FABRA: There's been a massive increase in renewable energy investments, which reduces the need to import gas. But in my view, the action has not been in line with the needs and the urgencies. We will react when we face the problem, but we do little to try to prevent and mitigate.

KAKISSIS: Which has left Europe now facing very high fuel costs. She says this lack of foresight has left Europeans living through not only an energy crisis but a political one.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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