The European Union is poised to ban Russian coal in the first sanctions on the vital energy industry over the war in Ukraine, but it has underlined the 27 nations' inability to agree on a much more sweeping embargo on oil and natural gas that would hit Russia harder but risk recession at home.
The coal ban, which is expected to be approved in a new package of sanctions this week, would cost Russia $4 billion a year, said the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. Energy analysts and coal importers say Europe could replace Russian supply in a few months from other countries, including the U.S.
Nearly $1 Billion a Day for Russian Oil
The coal ban is significant because it breaks the taboo on severing energy ties with Russia. But compared with natural gas and oil, coal is by far the easiest to cut off quickly and inflicts far less financial damage on Russian President Vladimir Putin's war chest. Europe sends 20 million euros ($22 million USD) a day to Russia for coal — but 850 million ($927 million USD) a day for oil and gas.
Shocking pictures of dead civilians from the Ukrainian town of Bucha are keeping discussion of broader sanctions alive, with EU officials saying they are working on targeting Russian oil.
While the European Union ponders such future sanctions, Italian Premier Mario Draghi said no embargo of Russian natural gas is up for consideration at this point.
“And I don’t know if it ever will be on the table,’’ Draghi told reporters in Rome on Wednesday night.
EU countries, especially big economies like Italy and Germany, rely heavily on Russian natural gas to heat and cool homes, generate electricity and keep industry churning.
Still, he said, “the more horrendous this war gets, the allied countries will ask, in the absence of our direct participation in the war, what else can this coalition of allies do to weaken Russia, to make it stop.”
In case a gas embargo is proposed, Italy “will be very happy to follow it” if that would make peace possible, Draghi said. “If the price of gas can be exchanged for peace ... what do we choose? Peace? Or to have the air conditioning running in the summer?"
For now, even the coal ban brings worrying consequences for politicians and consumers. Germany and EU members in Eastern Europe still generate a large share of their power from coal despite a yearslong transition toward cleaner energy sources.
“The coal ban means European consumers will have to brace for high power prices throughout this year,” according to a statement from Rystad Energy.
Higher prices in countries that use more coal will spread across the EU through its well-connected power grid, the energy research company said. That will bring more pain. Europe has been facing high energy prices for months over a supply crunch, and jitters over the war have sent them even higher.
Governments are rolling out cash support and tax relief for consumers hit by higher utility bills. High energy prices have pushed inflation in the 19 member countries that use the euro currency to a record 7.5%.
Commodities analyst Barbara Lambrecht at German bank Commerzbank said EU governments likely could agree on a coal embargo because it would come into effect after three months and only apply to new contracts. The downside is it would have limited impact on Russia, with coal only 3.5% of Russia’s exports and only a quarter going to the EU.
Germany’s coal importer’s association said Russian coal could be completely replaced from the U.S., South Africa, Colombia, Mozambique and Indonesia “by next winter” — at higher prices.
European coal futures prices jumped after the EU’s announcement, from around $255 per ton to $290 per ton.
The big debate remains around oil and natural gas, with the European Union dependent on Russia for 40% of its gas and 25% of its oil. It's tougher for Europe to cut off than the U.S., which imported little Russian oil and no gas and has banned both.
Decision on Oil & Gas Must Be Made
Yet European Council President Charles Michel said, “I believe that measures on oil and even on gas will also be needed sooner or later.”
Agreeing on energy sanctions among the 27 EU nations is made more difficult because some like Germany, Italy and Bulgaria are much more dependent on Russian gas in particular than others. Europe has scrambled to get what additional gas it can through pipelines from Norway and Algeria and acquiring more liquefied gas shipments by ship, but those global supplies are limited.
For now, the EU's energy plan is to cut dependence on Russian gas by two-thirds by year's end and completely over the next several years by stepping up alternative supplies, conservation and wind and solar.
Germany has reduced its reliance on Russian natural gas from 55% to 40%, but the government says the consequences of a cutoff in terms of jobs would be too great.
Germany's steelmaking association, for instance, has warned of forced shutdowns that would throw people out of their jobs or onto government support and send shortages of basic parts rippling through the rest of the economy.
Energy Minister Robert Habeck says the country will end Russian coal this summer, oil by year's end and gas in mid-2024.
Oil also would be easier to ban than gas, because like coal, there's a large and liquid global market for oil and it comes mostly by ship, not fixed pipeline like gas.
India and China
But it's not problem-free either. Russia is the world's largest oil exporter, with 12% of global supply. Taking that oil off the market would send prices higher from other suppliers such as Saudi Arabia in a market where supplies are already tight.
And Russia might simply sell the oil to India and China, which aren't taking part in sanctions — although the price Moscow gets might be lower.
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