Saying One Thing, But…

by Andrew Stuttaford

We hear a lot from the EU about the wickedness of fossil fuels, the horrors of fracking and so on, so (if accurate, and it seems to be) this report from The Washington Post makes interesting reading:

The European Union is pressing the United States to lift its longstanding ban on crude oil exports through a sweeping trade and investment deal, according to a secret document from the negotiations obtained by The Washington Post. It’s not entirely surprising. The EU has made its desire for the right to import U.S. oil known since the U.S. started producing large amounts of it in the mid-2000s. It signaled again at the outset of trade negotiations, and its intentions have become even more clear since.

This time, though, the EU is adding another argument: Instability on its Eastern flank threatens to cut off the supply of oil and natural gas from Russia. “The current crisis in Ukraine confirms the delicate situation faced by the EU with regard to energy dependence,” reads the document, which is dated May 27. The leak comes in advance of another round of discussions on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which kicked off last fall and is expected to encompass $4.7 trillion in trade between the U.S. and the European Union when it’s finished (here’s an explainer on the deal). That won’t happen for several years — if ever — but knowledge of the E.U.’s position has inflamed the already-hot debate over whether to allow the U.S.’ newfound bounty of crude oil to be exported overseas.

Particularly irksome to environmentalists is the EU’s request that the U.S. make a “legally binding commitment” to export its oil and gas, which U.S. negotiators have so far resisted, according to the correspondence. (The U.S. Trade Representative declined to comment on a leaked document, except to say that it’s too early to characterize its position on any matter).

“We find it particularly outrageous that a trade agreement negotiated behind closed doors is being used as a means to secure automatic access to both crude oil and natural gas,” said Ilana Solomon, director of the responsible trade program at the Sierra Club. “By lifting the ban, you’re creating a whole new market for the oil industry to export to, and windfall profits for oil companies, which means more money to frack more, to produce more, to burn more….”

It would take a heart of stone not to laugh.

Should the US sign a legally binding agreement committing it to permit free export of its oil and gas? I don’t think so. And if that means walking away from the TTIP so be it. The EU has decided to go with what is (theoretically at least, but…) a low carbon approach to its energy supply. Its leaders should be made to account for that to their electorates. For them to gain legally-guaranteed access to America’s wicked fuel while at the same time lecturing the US about the wickedness of that fuel would be to facilitate a hypocrisy too far.

The degree to which the US should permit the export of such fuels is an entirely different debate, but the argument that European nations should be given access to US oil to wean them off their unhealthy dependence on Russian energy resources is one that should not be pushed too far either as a matter of fact (how much difference would it really make in the reasonably foreseeable future?) or strategy: somehow these nations have to be persuaded to assume much more responsibility for their own defense. Is an easy assist on the energy question the best way to achieve that?

NATO members have a longstanding commitment to spend at least two percent of GDP on defense, but it is a commitment honored for the most part in the breach.  Check out this March piece in The Washington Post for details. It doesn’t make pretty reading, If Europeans want the US to take their strategic worries seriously, it would be good if they could show that they did too.

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