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France pushing for energy sanctions against Russia

BRUSSELS (AP) – French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said yesterday that there is a “total determination” from all 27 European Union (EU) countries for sanctions against Russia that could target oil and coal over evidence its troops deliberately killed Ukrainian civilians.

Europe’s dependence on Russian oil, gas and coal means finding unanimity on energy measures is a tall order, but the reports of the killings outside Kyiv have increased pressure for tougher EU sanctions.

So far, Europe has not been willing to target Russian energy over fears that it would plunge the European economy into recession. In some ways, it would be easier for Europe to go without Russian oil than gas because most supplies come by tanker and could be purchased from other suppliers. But talk of a possible boycott of Russian oil has helped push up global oil prices this week.

Asked whether there was a political willingness to impose sanctions on Russian oil and coal – a move suggested this week by French President Emmanuel Macron – Le Maire said: “We will see what the position of the other member states will be, but I think there is a possibility to have unity on the 27 member states on these new sanctions.”

He did not mention natural gas, and a consensus on targetting the fuel that is used to generate electricity and heat homes would be even more difficult to secure. The EU gets about 40 per cent of its natural gas from Russia and many EU countries, including Germany – the bloc’s largest economy – are opposed to cutting off gas imports.

France holds the presidency of the EU Council, and Le Maire spoke ahead of a meeting of EU finance ministers in Luxembourg, where they will discuss possible new measures to punish the Kremlin.

While the EU has stayed away from sanctioning Russian energy so far, individual countries have announced efforts to draw down their reliance: Poland said it plans to block imports of coal and oil from Russia, while Lithuania said it’s no longer using Russian natural gas.

The EU gets about 25 per cent of its oil from Russia, while the EU imported 53 per cent of hard coal from the country in 2020, which accounted for 30 per cent of the EU’s hard coal consumption.

A car stops in a gas station where prices are up to EUR2.75 per litre (USD3.04) in Marseille, southern France on March 9. PHOTO: AP

While coal and oil may be up for discussion, Spain’s Minister for Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera said yesterday that it is “very hard” for the EU to sanction Russian natural gas because some of the bloc’s countries are dependent on it for their energy supply and that the EU’s strength lies in its unity.

“It is very difficult to explain to European public opinion and Ukrainian society that we are still importing Russian energy that finances this war,” she said, adding that energy imports create “obvious moral tension.”

European importers pay about USD850 million per day for Russian oil and natural gas.

Russian natural gas mostly comes by fixed pipeline and would be harder to replace suddenly with shipments of expensive and scarce liquefied natural gas. While oil might be easier to cut off than gas, ditching it would not be without consequences.

For one, the resulting price increases for other oil could increase the incentive for India and China, who aren’t taking part in Western sanctions, to buy cheaper Russian crude. Russia is also a major supplier of diesel fuel; if that supply were lost, operating diesel-powered trucks and farm equipment could quickly become more expensive, fuelling already high inflation in Europe.

Oil prices rose as buyers seeking to avoid Russian oil bid for limited supply from other producers like Saudi Arabia, commodities analysts at German bank Commerzbank said.

International benchmark Brent rose three per cent on Monday and traded yesterday above USD108 per barrel, up another one per cent. US crude rose 1.1 per cent to USD104.37 yesterday. Crude prices had fallen after United States (US) President Joe Biden last week announced the release of 180 million barrels of oil over six months from strategic reserves.

Higher oil prices mean more expensive gasoline for US drivers. The next package of EU sanctions will be prepared by the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, which will then present it to EU countries for approval.