Ukraine’s leading campaigner against Russian fossil fuels refused entry to top US energy conference

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A Ukrainian lawyer, who founded the war-torn country’s leading campaign against Russian fossil fuels, has been refused entry to the world’s most prominent energy summit.

Svitlana Romanko travelled from her home in Ivano-Frankivsk, western Ukraine, in late February to Houston, Texas to attend CERAWeek, an annual summit which attracts the heads of major oil and gas companies and industry bodies along with senior government officials.

CERAWeek speakers this year included both John Kerry, the special presidential envoy for climate, ExxonMobil chief executive Darren Woods, and the Cop28 climate summit president, Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, who is also CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

In a phone interview with The Independent on Thursday, Ms Romanko said that she felt emotional about being so far from home following the news that Russia had launched a volley of missile attacks on Ukranian cities early this morning.

“It’s really frustrating but at the same time it makes me more determined to move forward, to increase the pressure on the policymakers and power-holders,” she said.

Ms Romanko, who holds a doctorate in environmental and climate law, and climate policy, launched the RazomWeStand (Stand With Ukraine) campaign to ban all imports of fossil fuels from Russia, end the war, and hasten a clean energy transition across the globe. The campaign is supported by nearly 900 organisations from 60 countries.

She had received a registration confirmation email for CERAWeek and a few invite reminders for the event, she said, ahead of it opening on Monday.

Svitlana Romanko at the entrance to CERAWeek in Houston (Svitlana Romanko at the entrance to CERA Week in Houston. The environmental lawyer was allowed inside to collect banners she had delivered to the venue and then escorted out, she said)
Svitlana Romanko at the entrance to CERAWeek in Houston (Svitlana Romanko at the entrance to CERA Week in Houston. The environmental lawyer was allowed inside to collect banners she had delivered to the venue and then escorted out, she said)

“On Sunday morning, I received a welcome email with logistics,” she said. “Then at 11am, there was a two-sentence email which said my registration was not accepted and was cancelled. It did not have a signature.”

Ms Romanko responded via email to ask why her registration had been cancelled but received only an automatic response which told her to come to the registration desk for a conference pass.

On Monday, when she arrived at the CERAWeek registration desk, she was told by the head of security that she was rejected for being an activist.

“I did not have plan B because I could not even think that I would not be allowed,” she said.

The Independent has contacted the communications department for S&P Global, which organizes CERAWeek, for comment.

Ms Romanko said that she regularly attends high-level events to discuss the clean energy transition, an issue which all major oil and gas companies claimt to support.

She was at the Cop27 climate summit in Egypt last November and has been working with EU leadership in Brussels to speed up Europe’s transition to renewable energy, as climate campaigner Bill McKibben noted this week.

The theme of CERAWeek 2023 was extremely fitting to her expertise, Ms Romanko noted. The conference, which ends on Friday, explores how the world can reduce emissions and meet growing energy demand amid shifting geopolitics, economic uncertainty and the upheaval of war.

“We can all agree that the deepest energy crisis in history has been caused by the Russian war,” she said.

While Ms Romanko has spent the week outside of CERAWeek, Stand With Ukraine’s message was delivered in a letter to White House adviser John Podesta via an acquaintance. Ms Romanko’s hope is that it’s delivered to President Joe Biden.

And though she hasn’t been told by the energy summit’s organisers why she was barred, she believes that “the fossil fuel industry is actually scared by having someone from Ukraine attend”.

She pointed out that the Stand With Ukraine campaign was not only calling for an end to the “global fossil fuel addiction that feeds Putin’s war machine” but also for countries to stop expansion of coal, oil and gas, and start phasing out.

As she wrote in the letter to President Biden, Ms Romanko is opening calling for investments to rebuild Ukraine’s infrastructure, 40 per cent of which has been destroyed by Russian attacks.

“This is the moment for transformative energy change and the idea that drives us is that Ukraine can become a shining global model of clean energy, a real net-zero energy system,” she said.

“Of course, we are in stark opposition to the oil and gas lobby, and the push to expand fossil-fuel infrastructure is the opposite of energy security. We will be safe only when public money and state subsidies fully withdraw from the oil and gas industry and get to spend at-scale on renewables and energy efficiency.”

She added: “This is the truth and the industry sitting in the CERAWeek hotel wants us silenced. But we will keep speaking this truth to power, because that’s how can we achieve change.”