Europe may replace Russian gas with US coal

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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While U.S. lawmakers are debating the merits of exporting natural gas to Europe to break Russia’s energy hold on the continent, one immediately exportable energy source has been overlooked: coal.

U.S. coal exports have been booming in recent years due to rising demand around the world. In fact, some European countries are already using U.S. coal to displace costly Russian gas. Europe’s biggest importers of American coal include Germany and the United Kingdom.

“The president is doing his best to stop coal use in America by issuing emissions standards that are so stringent it is not feasible to build a coal fired power plant, but other countries are desperate for this valuable energy resource and we are exporting coal in record numbers,” Republican Kentucky Rep. Ed Whitfield told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

U.S. coal exports have skyrocketed in recent years. Exports have grown from about 59 million short tons of coal in 2007 to nearly 118 million short tons last year, all while imports have fallen 75 percent over that time period.

“Some European countries are using U.S. coal to help displace Russian natural gas and neutralize Russia’s energy influence,” Whitfield said. “Coal exports are already having an impact on geopolitics and are helping to create American jobs and reduce our trade deficit. We can build on this success by increasing natural gas exports as well.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced many European countries to rethink their reliance on natural gas that can be stopped at any time by President Vladimir Putin. The European Union is debating allowing hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to unlock vast shale gas reserves as well as importing U.S. gas.

But importing U.S. gas is not a short-term solution, as the Obama administration has moved slowly in approving export terminals. Once an export terminal is approved, it can take years before it comes online and begins shipping out gas.

Some analysts expect U.S. coal exports to get another boost from the EU, since it’s the only viable short-term substitute for natural gas.

“We are serious about reducing our energy dependency. … We need a new way to do energy business,” said European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.

Germany and Italy are Russia’s largest gas clients in the EU, and both have been thinking of ways to reduce their reliance on Putin’s energy supplies. Germany, for example, is in a precarious energy position.

Green energy subsidies have made power costs 50 percent higher than the rest of the EU and the country’s plan to ditch nuclear power leaves it with few options of how to power its houses and industries. The most cost-effective alternative for Germany has been coal power, much of this coal has come from the U.S. in recent years.

According to government data, U.S. coal exports to Germany increased four percent in 2013 from 2012 levels, totaling a whopping 5.5 million short tons. And demand has only been growing since Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

The UK is also looking to cut its reliance on Russian energy. The country already gets most of its natural gas from Norway and has allowed for oil and gas companies to frack for gas on the island, despite aggressive environmentalist resistance.

Britain gets its Russian gas indirectly, so it’s well-placed to substitute it with domestic gas and even U.S. coal. The British coal industry has been in decline for two decades and the country will only have on deep mine in operation next year. Indeed, coal exports to Britain have already increased nearly 12 percent from 2012 to 2013.

Whatever Europe decides, Putin has said he does not believe the continent can easily buck its reliance on Russian energy.

“We sell gas in European countries which have around 30-35 percent of their gas balance covered by supplies from Russia,” Putin said in an hours-long TV interview on Thursday. “Can they stop buying Russian gas? In my opinion it is impossible.”

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