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Commentary By Max Schulz

Make Way for France!

An energy model for Europe. Oui!

By headbutting opponents and missing penalty kicks, France showed the world how not to win the World Cup. But with the G8 leaders about to gather in St. Petersburg for their annual meetings, France does have one important thing to show the world, and that’s how to guarantee a measure of national energy independence.

That is critical since the meetings are being billed as a summit on energy security, particularly for Western Europe’s advanced economies. The Europeans were alerted to this issue on New Year’s Day, when they awoke to find that Russia’s turning off the natural-gas spigots supplying Ukraine threatened their own supplies as well. Russia is a major energy exporter, and supplies more than a quarter of Europe’s gas. Shutting the pipelines to Ukraine meant that gas could not pass through to customers in Germany, Italy, Greece, and elsewhere.

It instantly dawned on millions of Europeans that what they had dismissed as a regional dispute could spill over into their own lives. Worse, it became clear that they could be very much at the mercy of an increasingly autocratic Kremlin. The old Soviet Union wore as a point of pride that it never missed an oil or gas shipment to Western European customers, and refused to wield energy as a weapon.

Not so Vladimir Putin’s new Russia. No matter how much the Putin era begins to look like the Soviet regime by jailing dissidents and cracking down on the press, it can’t make a similar guarantee.

That justifiably scares the rest of Europe. European Union officials have spent the better part of the year trying to figure out how to limit their exposure to Putin’s machinations, with little success. (Meanwhile Putin senses he may have made a mistake with regard to Western Europe with his heavy-handed actions toward Ukraine; as president of the G8 this year, it is he who established “energy security” as the summit’s principal topic.)

One answer is in front of their eyes, courtesy of the French: nuclear energy. In the 1970s, France decided to lessen its dependence on oil and gas imports by embracing nuclear power. It worked. In three decades, the country’s total energy consumption derived from oil fell from 71 percent to 39 percent.

Meanwhile, the country generates nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, and even exports significant amounts to its neighbors. Most important, France has insulated itself from the possibility of a natural gas shock brought about by anything Vladimir Putin might do, intended or not.

Anti-nuclear sentiment in Europe, strong for several decades thanks to memories of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, is waning. The French experience is showing Europeans that nuclear power can be used safely and efficiently. And with concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change driving the environmental debate, nuclear power is starting to look pretty good in places that up until now have been leery. British Prime Minister Tony Blair used to be opposed to nuclear energy, but this week his government unveiled an energy blueprint that calls for streamlining regulations to facilitate construction of new nuclear plants. Blair cited the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as key to his new thinking on nuclear.

Of course, nuclear energy isn’t the only component to ensuring energy security. Diversity of supply and of suppliers is also critical. Here, too, France is showing Europe the way. While EU ministers fret about getting cut off from Russian gas, France is taking the lead in importing liquefied natural gas, mostly from Algeria and Nigeria. It has two major LNG receiving terminals. Two more terminals are in the works for completion later this decade. As a worldwide market for LNG continues emerging, to be supplied by gas from places like Australia, Qatar, and Trinidad, the French will be well positioned as a European hub for future gas sales.

Only by ensuring adequate and safe supplies of energy can Europe hope to remain relevant in the 21st-century economy. The best way for a nation to do that is to make sure it isn’t overly dependent on Russia for its energy. France has taken significant measures to guarantee a measure of energy security. Other European nations could and should follow its example.

This piece originally appeared in National Review Online

This piece originally appeared in National Review Online