Published in Hebrew on March 16, 2022, in Davar online newspaper
By Rony Erez
In the heart of the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan is a crater, 70 meters in diameter and 30 meters deep, in which a fire has burned for over 50 years. A group of Soviet geologists came across a natural gas reserve amid excavations on-site, and decided to deplete the gas by igniting it, so that they could continue investigating. A flame was sparked that no one knows how to put out, and how long it will last remains unknown. The place has since been nicknamed the Gates of Hell.
That’s also a suitable name for the sights emerging from Ukraine today: the bombed-out streets; convoys of refugees; the sense that human life is so fragile that a tyrannical ruler’s decisions are sufficient to destroy entire cities along with communities and families. Like the flaming pit in Turkmenistan, no one knows how long the fire in Ukraine will last, as the gate to hell in Ukraine was also sparked by natural gas emanating from the earth.
Russia has already been described as a “gas station” presenting itself as a country. Approximately one-fifth of Russia’s annual output comes from fossil fuel industry pollution – namely through oil and gas. Approximately 60% of Russian exports are oil and gas. Roughly 30% of the Russian Federation’s annual budget comes from revenue from the oil and gas sector. Russian fuel is exported to Europe via pipelines – one passing through Ukraine, another through Poland, and a third via the sea to Germany. A major controversy that shaped the continent over the past two decades entailed another pipeline intended to transport gas from Russia to Germany, namely the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would further entrench Germany’s dependence on Russia. The US opposed this plan – as the US logically preferred for Europe to be dependent on its own gas corporations, which also compete for the European market. Now, after the invasion, Germany has announced that it is freezing the Nord Stream 2 plan.
For Russia, oil and gas are not merely sources of income. They are strategic tools in the international political game. Who will confront those whose hands control the taps for Europe’s energy? How can one risk the possibility that gas would cease to flow through the pipes amid the freezing European winter?
In recent months we witnessed how Putin and Russia used gas to destabilize Europe, raise prices, and maximize financial and political gains. The Russians allegedly allowed less gas to flow through the pipes than required. This made it impossible to fill emergency gas reserves in Europe, gas prices rose internationally, and European residents’ electricity bills grew ten times more expensive.
Sovereignty Entails Energy Security
What would be a suitable response to the Russian attack on behalf of the West? What should a future compromise ultimately contain? I’ll leave those questions for others to answer. I admit that I don’t know how to get the world out of a dangerous game created by battles between corporations on both sides. But there seems to be no better moment than this for us all to note that this is a game we’re better off not playing at all.
Human society’s need to maintain a high standard of living also entails consuming much energy. Dependence on energy sources concentrated in the hands of one or a few entities, puts the country at risk of being controlled and influenced by that entity, whether a foreign country or an international corporation. Moreover, it undermines its energy security, both with regard to political struggles and other extreme events, [earthquakes, wildfires, etc.]. Energy security is a critical component of a state’s independence and sovereignty, and its capacity to provide citizens with basic needs.
Israel has an abundant source of energy. Fortunately, the solar energy that comes from the sun is not controlled by any sole entity. A study conducted by the Ministry of Environmental Protection determined that there is enough urban space in Israel to install solar panels that would provide for approximately 46% of Israel’s electricity by 2030. The NZO plan formulated by us at the Heschel Center for Sustainability indicates that by 2050 95% of our electricity can be produced through solar energy.
Currently, over 70% of electricity in Israel relies on natural gas supply. Some believe that Israel has achieved energy independence thanks to the natural gas reserves along its coast. Yet it’s worth offering a reminder that control over the natural gas reserves remains in private hands, including those of an international corporation, and that the gas pipelines are susceptible to natural disasters and security attacks. And what if the natural gas stops flowing one day due to some malfunction, an accident, or someone’s decision?
If humanity manages not to lapse into a destructive nuclear war this time around, the enormous challenge of the climate crisis still awaits. The generation of electricity from renewable sources is vital in preventing the disaster that accompanies this crisis. Yet beyond such climate-related motives, Israel would do well to internalize Europe’s geopolitical lesson: one entity must not be granted sole control over our energy production. The best and most secure means of achieving security and sovereignty regarding this matter is the accelerated promotion of a national plan to generate decentralized electricity from solar energy.
The author is the Co-Executive Director of the Heschel Center for Sustainability