How Europe Got Hooked on Russian Gas Despite Reagan’s Warnings

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The measure drew immediate ire from America’s European allies, where the $25 billion pipeline promised a stable source of gas at a time nations were still reeling from the oil shocks of the 1970s. But within the United States, it was the oil and gas lobby that fought back.

The sanctions would “aggravate further our international reputation for commercial reliability,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represented major oil and gas companies and pipeline manufacturers among numerous other industries, warned in a letter to the White House. The pipeline would, in fact, give Western Europe “a degree of leverage over the Soviets rather than vice versa,” Richard Lesher, the group’s president, later told The Washington Post.

Following intense lobbying, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to lift the sanctions, despite a letter from Secretary of State George P. Shultz warning that such legislation would “severely cripple” the administration’s ability to deal with the Polish crisis.

That battle four decades ago marked the start of a huge build-out of gas infrastructure in Europe. Today, an extensive network of pipelines stretches from Russia to Europe, supplying about 40 percent of the continent’s gas.

That network has given Moscow leverage over its European neighbors. In 2009, when Russia and Ukraine became embroiled in a diplomatic dispute, Russia shut off its gas supplies, leaving tens of thousands of homes without heat. More than a dozen people froze to death, mainly in Poland, before Russia reopened its pipelines.

An abundant flow of gas from Russia had consequences beyond security, slowing Europe’s efforts to tackle climate change by shifting toward renewables, experts say. The European Union has said it now aims to reduce its gas imports by two-thirds, and quickly ramp up its use of wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy.

“Obviously they could have done that before, but there was no incentive to,” said Margarita Balmaceda, professor of diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University and an associate at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. Access to Russia’s gas, she said, had “definitely slowed the move toward renewables.”