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US and Germany strike Nord Stream 2 pipeline deal to push back on Russian 'aggression'

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Workers are seen at the construction site of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, near the town of Kingisepp, Leningrad region, Russia, June 5, 2019. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov/File Photo

The United States and Germany have unveiled an agreement on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline under which Berlin pledged to respond to any attempt by Russia to use energy as a weapon against Ukraine and other Central and Eastern European countries, write Simon Lewis, Andrea Shalal, Andreas Rinke, Thomas Escritt, Pavel Polityuk, Arshad Mohammed, David Brunnstrom and Doyinsola Oladipo.

The pact aims to mitigate what critics see as the strategic dangers of the $11 billion pipeline, now 98% complete, being built under the Baltic Sea to carry gas from Russia's Arctic region to Germany.

U.S. officials have opposed the pipeline, which would allow Russia to export gas directly to Germany and potentially cut off other nations, but President Joe Biden's administration has chosen not to try to kill it with US sanctions.

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Instead, it has negotiated the pact with Germany that threatens to impose costs on Russia if it seeks to use the pipeline to harm Ukraine or other countries in the region.

But those measures appeared to have done little to calm fears in Ukraine, which said it was asking for talks with both the European Union and Germany over the pipeline. The agreement also faces political opposition in the United States and Germany.

A joint statement setting out the details of the deal said Washington and Berlin were "united in their determination to hold Russia to account for its aggression and malign activities by imposing costs via sanctions and other tools."

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If Russia attempts to "use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine," Germany will take steps on its own and push for actions at the EU, including sanctions, "to limit Russian export capabilities to Europe in the energy sector," the statement said.

It did not detail specific Russian actions that would trigger such a move. "We elected not to provide Russia with a road map in terms of how they can evade that commitment to push back," a senior State Department official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We also will certainly look to hold any future German governments accountable for the commitments that they have made in this," the official said.

Under the agreement, Germany will "utilize all available leverage" to extend by 10 years the Russia-Ukraine gas transit agreement, a source of major revenues to Ukraine that expires in 2024.

Germany will also contribute at least $175 million to a new $1 billion "Green Fund for Ukraine" aimed at improving the country's energy independence.

Ukraine sent notes to Brussels and Berlin calling for consultations, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a tweet, adding the pipeline "threatens Ukraine's security." Read more.

Kuleba also issued a statement with Poland's foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, pledging to work together to oppose Nord Stream 2.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he was looking forward to a "frank and vibrant"discussion with Biden over the pipeline when the two meet in Washington next month. The visit was announced by the White House on Wednesday, but press secretary Jen Psaki said the timing of the announcement was not related to the pipeline agreement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin hours before the release of the agreement, the German government said, saying Nord Stream 2 and gas transit via Ukraine were among the topics.

The pipeline had been hanging over US-German relations since former President Donald Trump said it could turn Germany into a "hostage of Russia" and approved some sanctions.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Twitter he was "relieved that we have found a constructive solution".

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, asked about the reported details of the agreement earlier on Wednesday, said any threat of sanctions against Russia was not "acceptable," according to the Interfax news agency.

Even before it was made public, leaked details of the agreement were drawing criticism from ome lawmakers in both Germany and the United States.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who has been holding up Biden's ambassadorial nominations over his concerns about Nord Stream 2, said the reported agreement would be "a generational geopolitical win for Putin and a catastrophe for the United States and our allies."

Cruz and some other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are furious with the Democratic president for waiving congressionally mandated sanctions against the pipeline and are working on ways to force the administration's hand on sanctions, according to congressional aides.

Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said she was not convinced the agreement would mitigate the impact of the pipeline, which she said "empowers the Kremlin to spread its malign influence throughout Eastern Europe."

"I’m skeptical that it will be sufficient when the key player at the table – Russia – refuses to play by the rules," Shaheen said.

In Germany, top members of the environmentalist Greens party called the reported agreement "a bitter setback for climate protection" that would benefit Putin and weaken Ukraine.

Biden administration officials insist the pipeline was so close to being finished when they took office in January that there was no way for them to prevent its completion.

"Certainly we think that there is more that the previous administration could have done," the US official said. "But, you know, we were making the best of a bad hand."

Biofuels

Commission approves one-year prolongation of tax exemption for biofuels in Sweden

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The European Commission has approved, under EU state aid rules, the prolongation of the tax exemption measure for biofuels in Sweden. Sweden has exempted liquid biofuels from energy and CO₂ taxation since 2002. The measure has already been prolonged several times, the last time in October 2020 (SA.55695). By today's decision, the Commission approves an additional one-year prolongation of the tax exemption (from 1 January to 31 December 2022). The objective of the tax exemption measure is to increase the use of biofuels and to reduce the use of fossil fuels in transport. The Commission assessed the measure under EU State aid rules, in particular the Guidelines on State Aid for environmental protection and energy.

The Commission found that the tax exemptions are necessary and appropriate for stimulating the production and consumption of domestic and imported biofuels, without unduly distorting competition in the Single Market. In addition, the scheme will contribute to the efforts of both Sweden and the EU as a whole to deliver on the Paris agreement and move towards the 2030 renewables and CO₂ targets. The support to food-based biofuels should remain limited, in line with the thresholds imposed by the revised Renewable Energy Directive. Furthermore, the exemption can only be granted when operators demonstrate compliance with sustainability criteria, which will be transposed by Sweden as required by the revised Renewable Energy Directive. On this basis, the Commission concluded that the measure is in line with EU state aid rules. More information will be available on the Commission's competition website, in the State Aid Register under the case number SA.63198.

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Energy

Biden administration aims to cut costs for solar, wind projects on public land

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Solar panels are seen at the Desert Stateline project near Nipton, California, U.S. August 16, 2021. REUTERS/Bridget Bennett
Solar panels are seen at the Desert Stateline project near Nipton, California, U.S. August 16, 2021. Picture taken August 16, 2021.  REUTERS/Bridget Bennett

The Biden administration plans to make federal lands cheaper to access for solar and wind power developers after the clean power industry argued in a lobbying push this year that lease rates and fees are too high to draw investment and could torpedo the president's climate change agenda, write Nichola Groom and Valerie Volcovici.

Washington’s decision to review the federal land policy for renewable power projects is part of a broader effort by the government of President Joe Biden to fight global warming by boosting clean energy development and discouraging drilling and coal mining.

“We recognize the world has changed since the last time we looked at this and updates need to be made,” Janea Scott, senior counselor to the U.S. Interior Department’s assistant secretary for land and minerals, told Reuters.

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She said the administration is studying several reforms to make federal lands easier for solar and wind companies to develop, but did not give specifics.

The push for easier access to vast federal lands also underscores the renewable energy industry’s voracious need for new acreage: Biden has a goal to decarbonize the power sector by 2035, a target that would require an area bigger than the Netherlands for the solar industry alone, according to research firm Rystad Energy.

At issue is a rental rate and fee scheme for federal solar and wind leases designed to keep rates in line with nearby agricultural land values.

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Under that policy, implemented by the administration of President Barack Obama in 2016, somemajor solar projects pay $971 per acre per year in rent, along with over $2,000 annually per megawatt of power capacity.

For a utility-scale project covering 3,000 acres and producing 250 megawatts of power, that is a roughly $3.5 million tab each year.

Wind project rents are generally lower, but the capacity fee is higher at $3,800, according to a federal fee schedule.

The renewable energy industry argues the charges imposed by the Interior Department are out of sync with private land rents, which can be below $100 per acre, and do not come with fees for power produced.

They are also higher than federal rents for oil and gas drilling leases, which run at $1.50 or $2 per year per acre before being replaced by a 12.5% production royalty once petroleum starts to flow.

"Until these overly burdensome costs are resolved, our nation will likely miss out on living up to its potential to deploy homegrown clean energy projects on our public lands — and the jobs and economic development that come with it," said Gene Grace, general counsel for clean energy trade group American Clean Power Association.

The renewable energy industry has historically relied on private acreage to site large projects. But big tracts of unbroken private land are becoming scarce, making federal lands among the best options for future expansion.

To date, the Interior Department has permitted less than 10 GW of solar and wind power on its more than 245 million acres of federal lands, a third of what the two industries were forecast to install nationwide just this year, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The solar industry began lobbying on the issue in April, when the Large Scale Solar Association, a coalition of some of the nation’s top solar developers - including NextEra Energy, Southern Company and EDF Renewables - filed a petition with Interior’s Bureau of Land Management asking for lower rents on utility-scale projects in the nation’s blistering deserts.

A spokesperson for the group said the industry initially focused on California because it is home to some of the most promising solar acreage and because land around major urban areas like Los Angeles had inflated assessments for entire counties, even on desert acreage not suitable for agriculture.

Officials at NextEra (NEE.N), Southern (SO.N), and EDF did not comment when contacted by Reuters.

In June, the Bureau lowered rents in three California counties. But solar representatives called the measure insufficient, arguing the discounts were too small and that the megawatt capacity fee remained in place.

Attorneys for both the solar companies and BLM have discussed the issue in phone calls since, and further talks are scheduled for September, according to Peter Weiner, the attorney representing the solar group.

"We know that the new folks at BLM have had a lot on their plates," Weiner said. "We truly appreciate their consideration."

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Energy

State aid: Commission authorizes €37.4 million aid for the construction of a high-efficiency cogeneration installation on Reunion Island in France

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The European Commission has approved investment aid of €37.4 million under EU state aid rules for the construction of a high-performance cogeneration plant on Reunion Island in France. This installation will produce heat with the treatment of waste and electricity for more than 10,000 homes. The installation is scheduled to come into service in the second quarter of 2023. The beneficiary of the aid is the Mixed Syndicate of Waste Treatment of the South and West Microregions of Réunion, 'ILEVA'.

This project aims to promote high efficiency combined heat and power production on Reunion Island, given that the production of these cogeneration facilities allows primary energy savings compared to separate production. of heat and electricity. This project will also increase recycling rates by reducing municipal waste in landfills at the same time. The Commission has examined the measure against EU state aid rules, in particular its 2014 guidelines on state aid for environmental protection and energy.

The Commission considered that the measure is necessary, as the project would not be profitable without the aid granted and proportionate, as the aid intensity will respect the limit of eligible costs allowed. The Commission has concluded that the scheme will support the production of electricity from high-efficiency cogeneration, in line with the EU's energy and climate targets under the European Green Deal, without unduly distorting competition in the single market. On this basis, the Commission concluded that the measure complies with EU state aid rules. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under case number SA.60115 in the State Aid Register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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