How Ukraine Will Turbocharge America’s Energy Future

The new chill with Russia and chronic instability in the Mideast point to increasing bipartisan support for the U.S. to become an ‘energy superpower.’

Equipment used for the extraction of natural gas is viewed at a hydraulic fracturing site on June 19, 2012 in South Montrose, Pennsylvania. Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, stimulates gas production by injecting wells with high volumes of chemical-laced water in order to free-up pockets of natural gas below. The process is controversial with critics saying it could poison water supplies, while the natural-gas industry says it's been used safely for decades. While New York State has yet to decide whether to allow franking, Governor Andrew Cuomo is considering whether to allow limited franking for communities along the pennsylvania border that want it. Economically struggling Binghamton had passed a drilling ban which prohibits any exploration or extraction of natural gas in the city for the next two years. The Marcellus Shale Gas Feld extends through parts of New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia and could hold up to 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.  
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
March 20, 2014, 1 a.m.

Not sur­pris­ingly, Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers are already de­noun­cing Pres­id­ent Obama for be­ing too mild in his re­sponse to Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin’s ex­pan­sion­ist course in Ukraine and de­fi­ance of the West. What is much more likely to emerge as a bi­par­tis­an na­tion­al strategy, es­pe­cially in the long run, is a fu­ture that both Obama and Re­pub­lic­ans have been tout­ing: Amer­ica’s pro­spect­ive role as an en­ergy ex­port su­per­power.

Thanks to break­throughs in the con­tro­ver­sial tech­nique of “frack­ing,” or hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing, the United States re­cently passed Rus­sia as the world’s largest pro­du­cer of nat­ur­al gas. Sim­il­arly the United States is ex­pec­ted to over­take Saudi Ar­a­bia and Rus­sia as the world’s top oil pro­du­cer by 2017, also be­cause of new tech­no­lo­gies, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tion­al En­ergy Agency. The United States still pos­sesses an as­ton­ish­ing total of about $128 tril­lion in “tech­nic­ally re­cov­er­able” oil and gas re­sources alone, amount­ing to eight times the na­tion­al debt, says the In­sti­tute for En­ergy Re­search, a right-lean­ing non­profit found­a­tion in Wash­ing­ton.

Un­lock­ing a some­what lar­ger por­tion of those re­sources of oil and gas in an en­vir­on­ment­ally cau­tious way, while also launch­ing a massive new in­vest­ment pro­gram in green and oth­er tech­no­lo­gies, would strike dir­ectly at the heart of Putin’s ap­par­ent strategy for re­sur­rect­ing Rus­sia, some ex­perts say. It would also mark a dis­tinct con­trast from the per­son­al sanc­tions ap­plied so far against his top cronies, which ap­pear not to have dis­suaded Putin at all. 

The Rus­si­an lead­er has long be­lieved that Rus­sia’s power lies in its oil and gas re­sources (he even wrote a pa­per on the sub­ject as a gradu­ate stu­dent in St. Peters­burg), and he has not been shy about ap­ply­ing this as lever­age against the former So­viet bloc coun­tries on his peri­phery and against West­ern Europe, where the re­luct­ance to sanc­tion Mo­scow more severely is clearly linked to its de­pend­ence on Rus­sia for more than a third of its oil and gas.

Strik­ingly, Putin has ap­peared to be­come so re­li­ant on the eco­nom­ic po­ten­tial of en­ergy that he has done re­l­at­ively little to open up and mod­ern­ize Rus­sia’s eco­nomy, des­pite what should have been a glob­ally com­pet­it­ive tech sec­tor stem­ming from the na­tion’s his­tory as a de­fense and sci­entif­ic gi­ant.

In re­cent weeks, both con­ser­vat­ive out­lets such as The Wall Street Journ­al ed­it­or­i­al page and prom­in­ent lib­er­al plat­forms of opin­ion like The New York Times have sug­ges­ted that the United States in­crease its nat­ur­al-gas ex­ports to help West­ern Europe and re­duce Putin’s lever­age, es­pe­cially over Ukraine, which be­fore the stan­doff ob­tained about 90 per­cent of its nat­ur­al gas from Rus­sia. Some Re­pub­lic­ans on Cap­it­ol Hill have also used the crisis to plug pet pro­jects like the Key­stone pipeline and press the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to li­cense more nat­ur­al-gas ex­ports. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has called for lift­ing the ban on U.S. oil ex­ports. 

In truth, there is prob­ably not much the U.S. can do in the im­me­di­ate fu­ture to shift the eco­nom­ic de­pend­ence for Europe dra­mat­ic­ally; the ne­ces­sary plants and fa­cil­it­ies will take years to build. The more real­ist­ic ques­tion is longer term: wheth­er such a strategy should be­come a kind of en­ergy ana­logue to Cold War con­tain­ment policy, in part to counter what now looks like a long-term Putin strategy to­ward re­as­sert­ing Rus­si­an in­flu­ence in the former So­viet sphere.

Amer­ica’s rise to en­ergy in­de­pend­ence and ex­port­er status would achieve the mul­tiple aims of un­der­min­ing the sources of Putin’s power and in­flu­ence, draw­ing West­ern Europe closer, keep­ing China from al­ly­ing its own fu­ture too closely to Mo­scow’s (des­pite per­sist­ent woo­ing by Putin), and fur­ther free­ing Amer­ica of de­pend­ence on an­oth­er re­gion that has be­come in­creas­ingly frac­tious and un­depend­able: the Ar­ab world. The United States ap­pears to be fa­cing an era of en­dur­ing polit­ic­al in­stabil­ity in oil-pro­du­cing coun­tries like Ir­aq and Ir­an, and less and less de­pend­able dip­lo­mat­ic re­la­tions with al­lies such as Saudi Ar­a­bia and Qatar in the af­ter­math of the Ar­ab Spring.  

Such a strategy would also, not co­in­cid­ent­ally, go a long way to­ward solv­ing Amer­ica’s chron­ic debt prob­lem, which has be­come a grim ba­ro­met­er of oth­er coun­tries’ as­sess­ment of the United States’ so-called de­cline as a su­per­power. And grasp­ing hold of a new en­ergy fu­ture is, al­most uniquely, an is­sue that both parties seem now to agree on, des­pite the anxi­et­ies of the en­vir­on­ment­al lobby.

“If we could tap in­to even a smidgen of that wealth, we would solve our fisc­al prob­lems,” says James Pinker­ton, a former of­fi­cial in the Re­agan and George H.W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tions and fel­low at the New Amer­ica Found­a­tion. “Now, with the pro­spect of a new Cold War, we might look at the stra­tegic im­per­at­ive of us­ing that hy­dro­car­bon power to de­flate the Rus­si­ans.  It worked in the ‘80s for Re­agan against the So­vi­ets. It could work in the teens for the U.S. against Putin.” Pinker­ton adds that be­cause of the “em­bed­ded real­ity of a lot of greens and green bil­lion­aires” — a power­ful en­vir­on­ment­al lobby — any work­able strategy would have to in­clude in­vest­ment in clean en­ergy and car­bon se­quest­ra­tion, turn­ing cli­mate-warm­ing car­bon in­to some sort of us­able sol­id.

Dur­ing the 2012 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, Mitt Rom­ney un­veiled an ag­gress­ive pro­gram to open up more oil and gas drilling on fed­er­al lands. Some West­ern Demo­crats in the Sen­ate who have already been vo­cal in sup­port of ex­pand­ing en­ergy ex­ports say the last few weeks have revved up in­terest in re­vis­it­ing the sticky is­sue of bal­an­cing en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tion against re­source de­vel­op­ment, and find­ing a way around ob­jec­tions to frack­ing and oth­er con­tro­ver­sial tech­no­lo­gies. “The Crimea is­sue has def­in­itely raised the is­sue’s pro­file,” says Jen­nifer Tal­helm, spokes­wo­man for Sen. Tom Ud­all, D-N.M.

Obama, even while tout­ing Amer­ica’s fu­ture as an en­ergy ex­port­er, has been cau­tious in his ap­proach, un­til now. But that may soon change too, es­pe­cially as 2016 rolls around. Who has been among the strongest sup­port­ers of a new Amer­ic­an geo­pol­it­ic­al en­ergy strategy in re­cent years? Former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton.  

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