Fracking Isn't the Solution to Europe's Dependency on Russian Oil and Gas—Reducing Demand Is

Russia's invasion of Ukraine ignited a belated conversation about weaning Europe off Russian oil and gas.

Views Of Poland's Yamal Pipeline Amid Ongoing Tensions With Russia
The 4107 kilometer Yamal–Europe pipeline provides 40% of natural gas to Europe, connecting Russians Yamal Peninsula natural gas fields with Poland and Germany, through Belarus. Omar Marques / Getty Images

Growing up in the United Kingdom, it was almost impossible to talk about World War II without hearing about “the spirit of the Blitz.” Whether it was happy nights spent singing in the bomb shelters, or citizens enthusiastically existing on meager rations to “support our boys,” these tales were both inspiring and perhaps a little simplistic. After all, while immense sacrifices were undoubtedly made by ordinary citizens, the Imperial War Museum in London tells us that there were also plenty of cases of ration fraud and black market trading

But as a land war rages in Europe again, and as fossil fuel prices skyrocket as a result, I’m not so much interested in the literal truth about those times. I’m interested in the cultural resonance that those tales had. 

Here’s why: Russia's invasion of Ukraine ignited a belated conversation about weaning Europe off Russian oil and gas. Yet while the conversation itself is important, official plans so far seem to focus either on investing in technological alternatives like electrification and renewables, and/or alternatively hoarding more reserves, building more pipelines, and importing more liquefied natural gas from other countries. 

It’s also ignited a suspiciously coordinated gaggle of voices calling for fracking in Britain, more domestic production in the U.S., and a general doubling down on business as usual: 

Leaving aside the fact that switching fossil fuels or fossil fuel supply routes just trades one dependency for another, all of these options take time. A lot of time. Even with distributed renewables, we’re talking about years of installations before we really start making a difference. Meanwhile, Russia is advancing toward the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, gas prices are spiking, and Russian politicians are using the threat of higher energy costs as a cudgel against the West. 

Yet as the recent history of pandemic-related lockdowns has shown us, there is one solution that can be implemented almost overnight: demand reduction. And by that, I don’t mean simply passing the buck and asking individual citizens to wear a sweater. But, rather, coordinated, society-wide efforts to make conservation—whether that’s choosing to telecommute or adjusting the thermostat—the norm. 

  • What if Western governments got real about promoting cycling? 
  • What if Western governments dramatically scaled up support for work-from-home policies? 
  • What if Western governments invested in a mass mobilization in pursuit of simple, energy-saving measures for homeowners and renters alike? 
  • What if Western governments accelerated shifts to the electrification of homes and offices?
  • What if Western governments undertook a serious communication effort asking citizens to conserve, and supporting those experiencing fuel poverty? 

I’m aware there are limitations to this approach. After all, I’ve spent a lot of my time arguing that the rich and powerful calling for voluntary sacrifices from others is too often a distraction from the systemic changes that are needed. Yet my argument has never been with the idea of behavior change. Instead, it’s been with the focus on individuals, as opposed to the collective, scalable response. (Admittedly, calls for sacrifice might have been easier if the ruling elite hadn’t flouted rules last time around.)

The reason, of course, why governments are unlikely to really get serious about a push to consume less is simple: fossil fuel companies hold outsized influence over our democratic institutions, and our economy currently relies on the continued consumption of their products. 

Let’s forget the Russian invasion for a second, however. From the massive external financial costs on society to violence in places that just aren’t majority white and don’t happen to be next to the European Union, it’s been clear for some time that we have to stop the burning of fossil fuels—and we have to do so fast. So maybe it is time for us all to start talking about sufficiency

If the “spirit of the Blitz” tales have any truth to them, then a coordinated effort to encourage and support shifts in behavior—as long as the effort is fairly distributed—can be a great way to build a common cause, and maybe even fond memories too.

I’m beginning to sound like Treehugger design editor Lloyd Alter here. But maybe that’s no bad thing. And Alter and I are very far from alone.