Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Thanks for starting your week with us here on The Takeaway. Russia's brutal, deadly invasion of Ukraine continue to dominate the news this weekend. Perhaps most shocking are the heartbreaking and infuriating reports of civilians trying to flee to safety being killed by Russian shelling. Ukraine's president characterizes the actions as purposeful murder, and world leaders have suggested the actions constitute more crimes. In the midst of the chaos, so many of us continue to try to understand, how did we get here? Is there a way to get out?
These are questions intimately tied to the world's supply of energy. Despite some recent efforts to shift towards renewable sources, the world still runs on fossil fuels. According to Pew Research, fossil fuel use went from 84% to 80% between 2008 and 2018. One of the biggest players in this industry is Russia. The country is the second-largest producer of natural gas and the third-largest producer of oil in the world. That's why President Biden made this announcement last week during his State of the Union.
President Biden: I can announce the United States has worked with 30 other countries to release 60 million barrels of oil from reserves around the world. America will lead that effort, releasing 30 million barrels of our own Strategic Petroleum Reserve and we stand ready to do more if necessary, united with our allies.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's why when we asked you what's keeping you up at night, as you watch the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many had this question.
Alan: Alan Tomko, Parma, Ohio. My question is, why are we giving Vladimir Putin money for oil? We're paying for his bombs.
Melissa Harris-Perry: A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the US had been asking the same question as anything to pressure the Biden Administration to ban imports of Russian oil and rely more on domestic fossil fuels, but the White House is resisting that measure at the moment, arguing would unnecessarily raise gas prices for Americans. Even without official sanctions on oil exports, purchase of Russian oil have decreased since Putin's invasion of Ukraine got underway. That's just one part of the energy sector story when it comes to this brutal war.
Last Friday, Russian military forces attacked and took control of the largest nuclear power plants in Europe, located in southeastern Ukraine. Officials have said that they do not believe radioactive materials were released as a result of these attacks, but US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield had this to say at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield: Russia's attack last night put Europe's largest nuclear power at grave risk. It was incredibly reckless and dangerous. It threatened the safety of civilians across Russia, Ukraine, and Europe.
Melissa Harris-Perry: With all of the energy-related issues in this conflict, it's hard not to wonder whether this moment will finally serve as a wake-up call for global reliance on oil, gas, and nuclear energy. For more, I'm joined now by Jonathan Elkind, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. He's also a former Assistant Secretary for International Affairs at the Department of Energy. Thanks for being here, Jonathan.
Jonathan Elkind: It's my pleasure.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Just how reliant is the world on Russia?
Jonathan Elkind: Russia, as you've noted, is an important supplier and an important exporter of many different fuels. Russia represents about 10% of global oil production, at the head of the pack when it comes to exports of natural gas, especially to Europe, but it's also worth noting that Russia represents roughly 40% of the coal that is going to Europe, and it's also a major player in nuclear fuels as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Did European nations, did the US prior to this moment, see this reliance on Russian fuel as a political risk and as a global security risk?
Jonathan Elkind: The conversation about Europe's gas reliance on Russia is a conversation that's been going on back to the Reagan Administration, literally. Successive US administrations have raised two European decision-makers. Washington's concerns that, in fact, Europe was opening itself to greater and greater vulnerability. This really got accentuated as domestic natural gas production in Europe has dropped very appreciably, especially in the last 20 years. Today, Russia's supply of gas to Europe represents more than 40% of Europe's total consumption, but from the European perspective, many, not all European decision-makers, have taken the view that this was a low probability risk and one that they were prepared to take on.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When we think about cost benefits probability even when vanishingly small has to be balanced against how bad the outcome can be. Even if it's a small probability, the likelihood that if it happened, the outcome would be really horrifying. I think sometimes that's the language around nuclear energy that the likelihood of something bad happening is very small, but if it happened, the bad outcome would be so enormous. I guess I'm wondering if this will change our understanding of how to balance those benefits and risks.
Jonathan Elkind: The other companion to the notion of low probability is high impact. In the current day, we see that high impact. As of this moment, Russia is still delivering gas. Be it at lower levels than was true in past years, but it is still delivering gas to European buyers, and so there's some comfort to be taken there. Indeed, high impact is the world we're living in, and Europe would be seriously scrambling, if Russia elected to cut off the gas supplies or if simply pipelines were damaged or destroyed in the course of the hostilities that Russia has brought on to Ukrainian soil.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If we go back to our caller, are we paying for the bombs that are killing Ukrainian civilians right now with our purchases of Russian fuel?
Jonathan Elkind: Russia's crude oil and refined products represent a very small share of total consumption in the United States. In fact, the United States is a net exporter of petroleum and petroleum products. It is a much bigger story in the case of Europe, which is the single largest purchaser of Russian exports of petroleum and refined products, there is a real money flow. Secretary of State Tony Blinken has commented through the weekend that ongoing discussions are underway about the possibility of cutting off purchases of oil and gas from Russia.
elissa Harris-Perry: Why in the world are the gas prices so high at the pump right now then?
Jonathan Elkind: Gasoline prices are high at present because the market is engaged in assessing where prices are likely to go in the future. People are anticipating what supplies may be like in the weeks ahead. Today's cost includes both an indication of the balance between supply and demand, and this is a time when people are interested to buy oil in order to have it available if there are disruptions in the market.
Melissa Harris-Perry: President Biden and Democrats are going to be concerned about high gas prices. These are the kinds of things that affect elections presumably, and we have largely a group of Republican lawmakers saying that the Biden Administration could address this by both releasing more oil here in the US, but also being willing to drill and to produce more oil. Help us to understand the extent to which that is, is or is not a real solution to what we're seeing both relative to Russian oil and relative to gas prices.
Jonathan Elkind: It's a little bit of an oversimplification to think that magically we could flip a switch or wiggle our nose and create more production in the United States.
In fact, if you talk to oil industry executives, what you will hear time and again, the most serious obstacle to higher production levels in the United States has been a focus from Wall Street on higher returns to investors. It's not that there are huge obstacles that are stopping the oil and gas producers from pulling more out of the ground, it's that their financial investors have been saying, "We want to see some financial discipline, we want to see returns to investors," rather than growth in production just for growth sake. Even with that backdrop, expectations are that in the course of 2022, we will see US production rise by somewhere between 700,000 and 900,000 barrels per day. That's not a huge increment if you consider that Russian exports of oil are about four and a half million barrels per day, it is certainly a market response.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One more bid here with me about nuclear power. I think we had some sleepless nights all over the world, but certainly in Ukraine and in Europe about this Russian takeover of Europe's largest nuclear power plant. What type of risks are posed by this kind of hot warfighting this close to that plant?
Jonathan Elkind: It's really mind-boggling that Russian forces would have been firing at anything near to a nuclear power plant. The fact is that the buildings that evidently were hit and then were ablaze several days ago, were administrative buildings and not the actual power plant itself. Unfortunately, we now see reports today that Russian forces are approaching the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant, which is the second-largest Ukrainian operating nuclear power plant. This is in the Mykolaiv Oblast region. This story is not done.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can this move Americans and the world towards more serious conversations about an adoption of renewable energy?
Jonathan Elkind: We must proceed with a transition to low carbon energy. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a new study looking at impacts of a changing climate between 3.3 and 3.6 billion people are already living where they are highly vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate. The companion that needs to go along with our attention to climate change is our attention to energy security. We need to proceed in tandem with these. What that means as a practical matter is we need diversified energy systems that are rapidly moving toward lower and lower eventually no carbon in our energy systems.
We need to be very meticulous in our planning as we go. This is a measure twice cut once a moment. We need to make sure that as we transition our energy system, we are not increasing our vulnerability to any form of energy insecurity. As terrible as Russia's attack on Ukraine is, as brutal as the human impact is, this is in the energy space. One of the slightly positive elements that will come from this period.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jonathan Elkind, senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. Thank you for your time today.
Jonathan Elkind: Thank you.
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