The Oil and the Glory

Germany’s denuclearization shot in Russia’s arm

Germany’s denuclearization shot in Russia’s arm

Russian influence is the big gainer from Germany’s decision to stop producing nuclear power. The losers are eastern and central European states including Lithuania, Poland and Hungary, and American influence.

For three years, Russia’s enormous, natural gas-led political and economic influence in Europe has been undermined by a technological advance — Houston wildcatter George Mitchell’s refinement of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which unleashed a gusher of new natural gas supplies. The new supply triggered a chain reaction, undermining Russia’s monopolistic hold on Europe’s natural gas market, and its general influence on the continent.

Now, a technological disaster — the meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactors after a March earthquake and tsunami — has restored Moscow’s place on the playing field. At once, Germany — already reliant on Russia’s Gazprom for 30 percent of its natural gas — will be buying much more gas in order to compensate for the loss of nuclear power, which provides 28 percent of Germany’s electricity. Hence Germany — for many years Russia’s most important ally in Europe — is likely to become an even more open ear for the policies of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.  "Higher gas demand will mitigate the U.S. shale gas impact and strengthen Gazprom’s hand again," Roderick Kefferputz, an analyst at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, told me in a Twitter exchange.

Here is the background: German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday announced that nuclear power will be phased out by 2022. Merkel is a full-throated supporter of nuclear power, and had previously decided to extend the life of the plants through 2036. But German public opinion shifted dramatically against nuclear power following Fukushima, and turned against her conservative party: With German elections looming in 2013, Merkel has seemed likely to be stampeded out of power at the hands of the country’s anti-nuclear Green party, which has been "wildly popular," according to the Financial Times. German polls conducted after Fukushima show some 70 percent of German voters opposing nuclear power, the Wall Street Journal reports. In response, Merkel has put aside the geopolitical and economic cost, and moved away from nuclear power with hopes of winning in two years.

Her calculus is highly debatable. "Conservative allies have been frustrated by her turn away from a cherished policy victory, and nuclear opponents have seen the move as opportunistic," Patrick McGroarty and Vanessa Fuhrmans write at WSJ. Analysts quoted by Reuters agree. Yet, Merkel’s calculation may be that, even if she loses, why not make a decision today that would be taken in any case by her opponents if they win the elections, and perhaps leave open the nearer-term possibility of returning to power?

As for the geopolitics, these facts on the ground are more dug in. Soon after Fukushima, Merkel idled seven older nuclear power reactors pending a study of the industry. Even then, analysts were saying that Russian influence would grow as a consequence. But Merkel’s new go-for-broke decision puts Germany more squarely in the hands of Gazprom.

Nord Stream, the giant new natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, will come on line by the end of the year, and now will almost certainly be doubled in size with a parallel line. South Stream, another proposed Russian gas pipeline to Europe that I had thought was dead, is now back on life support. So is Nabucco, a U.S.-backed pipeline from Azerbaijan to Europe. All this gas will be needed now that Germany won’t be producing nuclear power for the home market.

If Poland proceeds to develop a large shale gas industry of its own, the pendulum could swing back against Gazprom. But for now, it appears that the Baltic states and a handful of eastern European countries that rely on Gazprom for 100 percent of their supply will remain weak. Relative U.S. influence will decline because as often as not, U.S. foreign policy conflicts with Moscow’s. Germany, Italy and others are now more likely to side with the Russian view.