Politics & Policy

Counter Putin with Natural-Gas Exports

Obama should ignore the green lobby and expedite exports to Europe.

Post-Crimea, everyone suddenly recognizes that Russia is a potential geopolitical menace to the West.

But for years the Obama administration has completely failed to use the U.S.’s boom in energy production to increase its security and that of its European allies. Frustrated members of Congress from both parties now want to force the White House to stop delaying a full two dozen permits for the export of America’s abundant natural gas.

Ukraine depends on Russia for more than two-thirds of its natural gas, and Russia is already raising prices steeply. Thirty-four percent of Europe’s gas came from Russia last year. Indeed, it was in part Ukraine’s reliance on Russian energy that pushed now-deposed Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych to abandon a scheduled trade deal with the European Union in favor of discount natural-gas prices from Russia, among other inducements from Putin. That turnaround led to the street protests that toppled Yanukovych last month.

So far the administration, under pressure from its environmental allies, is exhibiting no sense of urgency on an issue that should be a no-brainer. “Its slow-walking of liquefied natural-gas plant permits is of a piece with its failure to approve the Keystone pipeline and get new trade deals done,” says James Lucier, an energy analyst with Capital Alpha Partners in Washington. “It’s all a sign of just how disengaged from the rest of the world the Obama folks have become.”

In an effort to push the Obama folks into dealing with global realities, the House Foreign Affairs Committee last Thursday unanimously passed a resolution that condemns Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and supports taking steps to reduce Russia’s control of energy and allow more natural-gas exports. Chairman Ed Royce, a California Republican, told me: “With Russia’s economy so dependent on oil and gas sales and with the U.S. increasingly abundant in energy, it makes no sense not to include energy in our ‘soft power’ response to Russia’s aggression.” The full House will vote on the resolution on Tuesday. Speed is important; this week Russia announced it was already raising prices on the vital natural gas it sends to Ukraine, pushback for the new government’s orientation to the West.

Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House aide, and Lee Feinstein, a former Obama-administration ambassador to Poland, told Reuters last week that “natural gas from the U.S. will not eliminate Russian leverage, but together with substantial supplies already on the market and other sources from Qatar and Norway, it could reduce Russia’s stranglehold on European energy requirements.” Several Democratic senators, including Mark Udall of Colorado and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, agree and have joined legislation to accelerate the permitting process. “The moment is in front of us,” Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat from Alaska, told reporters last week: “We should take advantage of this and use it as an international tool that could help create allies but also help make sure Russia isn’t just running amok out there.”

Many members of Congress want the administration to follow through on President Obama’s oft-repeated campaign pledge that America will pursue an “all of the above” energy strategy. The steps to make good on this promise are easy, many believe, and they are frustrated that Obama so far remains unmoved. “The president doesn’t need legislation from Congress to make these changes, from approving Keystone to ending the embargo on energy development on federal lands to natural-gas exports,” House Speaker John Boehner told a group last Friday. That same day, the Wall Street Journal published an appeal Boehner wrote to President Obama, in which he urged, “This is something the President could do right now in the face of Putin’s aggression.”

The White House, however, feels no sense of urgency. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday that because Europe has had a relatively mild winter, gas supplies are at or above normal levels. The environmental groups behind Obama also piously claim that nothing can be done. No matter what President Obama might order, they note, no new natural-gas-export terminals could be finished before next year. But Obama’s delays, which have cost us precious time, are no excuse to keep doing the wrong thing.

Green groups also note that natural-gas deposits are often exploited through “fracking,” the procedure by which fluid is injected into cracks in rocks to force them open, allowing more oil and gas to flow out. Despite numerous scientific studies that find no environmental harm from the process, green advocates view fracking as dangerous both in itself and because it encourages increased use of the fossil fuels they despise.

Marita Noon, executive director of Energy Makes America Great Inc., adds: “Environmental groups who are pushing to ban fracking will put the U.S. in much the same place Ukraine finds itself in — beholden to unfriendly forces who can use energy to control us. Most people do not realize that more than 96 percent of the oil and natural-gas wells within our borders are developed using hydraulic fracturing.”

The Obama administration faces a critical choice: It can continue to appease its environmental allies, or it can accept the new reality that the U.S. must use its energy resources to help check Putin’s aggression. Here’s hoping the administration listens to the voices of Democrats who recognize the importance of countering Russian aggression regardless of what sanctions are imposed. As Bill Richardson, who was energy secretary under President Clinton, put it: “What we are offering the international community and our friends by exporting natural gas is a form of energy security.”

So far, Obama has given nothing more than empty words to America’s energy producers and allies. It is perhaps telling that when Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic sent a letter late last week urging the U.S. to step up efforts to export natural gas, it was addressed to House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. These countries have no doubt made private appeals to the White House, but the Europeans aren’t waiting for President Dither to make up his mind.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.


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