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Could clean energy replace Russian oil?

Fossil fuel interests are calling for more domestic drilling to supplant Russia’s fossil fuels. But climate advocates say there’s a better alternative: Speeding the renewable energy transition.

In this photo taken May 18, 2015, the south end of a partial rainbow seems to touch down on the hills behind the wind turbines southwest of Walla Walla, Wash.Greg Lehman/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin via AP

Minutes after President Biden announced last week that the US will ban imports of Russian oil, the American Petroleum Institute, the nation’s largest oil and gas lobbying organization, issued a statement calling for more domestic drilling and increased gas exports to Europe.

It’s a rallying cry the fossil fuel trade group has been sounding since the day Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. So have an array of politicians and pundits.

But climate advocates say there’s a better alternative: Speeding the renewable energy transition.

“This is the time to get ourselves unhooked from our volatile fossil-fueled economy,” said Collin Rees, a program manager at climate research and advocacy group Oil Change International.


It’s clear the world needs to rapidly phase out polluting energy. A landmark UN climate report concluded that any delay in global cooperation to cut greenhouse gas emissions “will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”

Increasing drilling, said author and activist Bill McKibben, would move us in the wrong direction: “It only gets us deeper into dependence on fossil fuel.”

Russian fuel comprises just a small portion of the US’s energy mix — only roughly 3 percent of crude imports came from the country last year. Bringing new dirty energy sources online to supplant that, said Rees, makes little sense.

“Instead, we can massively ramp up energy efficiency efforts and massively ramp up renewable energy sources like wind, solar,” he said.

For Europe, which obtains a much larger portion of its fuel from Russia, weaning off Russian energy imports will be harder. But it’s a challenge the EU may soon have to face: Russia is threatening to cut off European gas supplies, and the EU is also weighing cutting imports from Russia by two-thirds this year.


The American Petroleum Institute wants the EU to replace those supplies with gas from the US, which is already a top gas exporter. But there are greener and safer ways the US can help fill the gap.

On his Substack, McKibben suggested that Biden invoke an emergency defense law to quickly scale up the production of heat pumps to send to Europe.

Two hundred groups have backed the proposal, and Biden officials are now reportedly considering it.

Here in the US, Ted Nace, founder and executive director of Global Energy Monitor, said the “best way” to replace Russian oil is to promote the use of electric cars and a renewable grid to power them. Upping investments in public transportation could help, too.

Rees, whose organization supports the measure, said the US could use the same law to increase the production of heat pumps for domestic use, as well as insulation to weatherize buildings and electric vehicle chargers.

These measures also could lower energy bills while fuel prices are spiking, since wind and solar are currently the cheapest sources of electricity on the US grid.

“The more renewable energy is added to the grid, the cheaper the average cost of electricity,” Nace said.

Replacing Russian gas with American gas may seem like a more straightforward option. But despite claims from the fossil fuel industry and some politicians, the US can’t simply boost exports to Europe overnight.


“It’s not a quick fix,” said Trey Cowan, an analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

National export terminals are near their capacity limits, so the US would first need to build facilities to convert fracked gas into liquefied natural gas so it’s ready to export. The EU’s import terminals are also already operating at full capacity, so it would also need to build new ones to convert the gas back into usable fuel.

“You’re looking at three to five years or more,” said Cowan.

Rees said that unlike the oil industry’s plan, rapidly scaling up the manufacturing of climate-friendly technologies would leverage existing manufacturing capacity, so it could move on a quicker timeline.

“And it has the advantage of ... not killing the planet,” he said.

Exporting gas to Europe also would be financially risky, because with the world moving toward decarbonization, all that new infrastructure could become obsolete before it is paid for.

Even renewable power requires foreign resources to produce, including minerals like copper and nickel, of which Russia is a leading producer. But relying more heavily on widely available power sources like wind and solar would be a big step toward reducing reliance on autocratic states. Right now, energy-rich countries enjoy relative impunity since they can use their fossil fuel stocks as leverage.

“No one gets to be the Putin of solar power or wind power,” said McKibben. “No Putin can embargo the sun.”


Dharna Noor can be reached at dharna.noor@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.