Ukraine crisis forces bloc to seek diverse sources of gas, but green groups complain ignoring renewables is a mistake
Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent
Fracking for shale gas in Marcellus Goliath Pennsyvania
Threaded drilling pipes are stacked at a hydraulic fracturing site. EC's new energy strategy prescribes Europe to explore its own shale gas reserves. Photograph: Ty Wright/Getty Images
Europe will need to tap more diverse sources of gas and develop more supplies of controversial shale gas within the continent, amid concerns over the Ukraine crisis, according to a new energy security strategy unveiled by the European commission on Wednesday.
But green campaigners pointed to a change from earlier proposals for the strategy in favour of more emphasis on gas at the expense of green fuels and reducing demand. They slammed the published strategy for promoting fossil fuels too heavily and failing to give a key role to energy efficiency and renewables
Increasing the sources of supply for the EU's imports of gas was cited as the priority by the bloc's energy chief, Guenther Oettinger. About 40% of the EU's imported gas supply comes from Russia, with around a third from Norway and a fifth from north Africa. But in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, energy experts are worried that this over-dependence on Russia could expose European business and citizens to threats from the Kremlin and higher prices. Russia earlier this month signed a $400bn deal to supply gas to China.
Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European commission, made it clear in launching the strategy that gas was at its heart: "The EU has done a lot in the aftermath of the gas crisis 2009 to increase its energy security. Yet, it remains vulnerable. The tensions over Ukraine again drove home this message. In the light of an overall energy import dependency of more than 50% we have to make further steps. Increasing energy security is in all our interest. On energy security, Europe must speak and act as one."
Reducing the over-dependency on Russia and getting new gas supplies were cited as part of a "long list of homework" for the EU by Oettinger. "We want strong and stable partnerships with important suppliers, but must avoid falling victim to political and commercial blackmail," he said. "We need to accelerate the diversification of external energy suppliers, especially for gas."
Increasing indigenous energy production was also listed as a priority by the commission. But as well as including renewable energy, which has been the main focus in the past, this would now explicitly include "sustainable production of fossil fuels", which would be expected to include shale gas.
Europe spent about €421bn (£342bn) in 2012 on energy imports, which make up just over half of energy use. Gas is one of the biggest imports, with two thirds of it coming from overseas, and used mainly for heating and industrial purposes, with a smaller proportion going to power generation.
Oettinger also cited the need for new infrastructure, which could include more methods of importing gas, such as new pipelines and ports equipped for ships carrying liquefied natural gas, and interconnectors that allow grids in different countries to be hooked together and suppliers to be connected to users. Other actions included completing the EU's internal energy market, which is part of the liberalisation of energy markets that has long been a target for Brussels regulators.
Franziska Achterberg, energy policy director at Greenpeace, said: "The commission's plan will do very little to reduce the EU's dependence on energy imports. Throwing money at new gas infrastructure to get Europe off Russian gas will not cure the addiction to imported fossil fuels. Europe would still be a junkie desperate for a fix. Instead, Europe should kick the habit and exploit the enormous potential for energy savings and home-grown renewables by setting ambitious targets for 2030. Anything less would not only be environmentally and economically disastrous. It would be politically irresponsible."
Energy efficiency was intended to be a key plank of the energy security strategy in the early stages of the plans, but the European Environment Bureau, a non-governmental organisation, said that in the final version it "had moved too far down the list of priorities in the commission's proposal" and was a missed opportunity as there could be a saving of more than 40% of energy use in the next 15 years if measures were taken quickly. Susanna Williams, policy officer at EEB, said: "Europe's number one priority should be to exploit our abundant indigenous resources of energy savings and renewable energy. This is the only truly sustainable solution which does not rely on costly and unsustainable alternatives such as diversification of gas supply routes or the development of shale gas."
The commission told the Guardian that energy efficiency would be addressed separately, potentially with a specific target on efficiency savings. Connie Hedegaard, the EU climate commissioner, said: "Energy security and the fight against climate change are inseparable: without climate policies there can't be energy security. This is why energy efficiency and renewables will continue to be two key ingredients as they are good both for the climate and energy security. Europe is already saving €30bn a year by replacing imported fossil fuels with locally produced renewable energy. In other words, we invest the money here in Europe instead of sending it to Putin's Russia and other fossil fuel providers outside Europe.''
The strategy will be discussed by the leaders of member states late next month, when they will also discuss future climate change policy.