Fracking’s Odd New Friend: Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
National Journal
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
March 19, 2014, 1:49 a.m.

As Vladi­mir Putin pushes Rus­sia’s sphere of in­flu­ence farther in­to east­ern Europe, the White House, Cap­it­ol Hil, and K Street are all push­ing plans to counter Rus­sia’s en­ergy might with an en­ergy surge of their own.

But as they craft their strategy, the poli­cy­makers are lay­ing the ground­work for plans that green groups loathe. First and fore­most: li­que­fy­ing U.S. nat­ur­al gas and ex­port­ing it to for­eign mar­kets.

For en­vir­on­ment­al groups bat­tling a well-fin­anced in­dustry ex­port push, the glob­al se­cur­ity ele­ment adds a new chal­lenge to an already dif­fi­cult fight.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists have long been bat­tling in­dustry claims that U.S. ap­prov­al of ex­pan­ded ex­ports would be a do­mest­ic eco­nom­ic boost.

But now they’re fa­cing a new ar­gu­ment: that ex­pan­ded and ex­por­ted en­ergy pro­duc­tion (and frack­ing ex­pert­ise) could boost the na­tion’s for­eign policy power — and do so without so much as fir­ing a bul­let.

“The crisis in Ukraine has brought … use of U.S. shale en­ergy in the ser­vice of na­tion­al se­cur­ity goals in­to main­stream, bi­par­tis­an policy dis­cus­sion,” said Eliza­beth Rosen­berg, dir­ect­or of the En­ergy, En­vir­on­ment, and Se­cur­ity Pro­gram at the Cen­ter for a New Amer­ic­an Se­cur­ity.

Ex­port back­ers on K Street and Cap­it­ol Hill have cited the Ukrain­i­an tu­mult to press for faster fed­er­al ap­prov­al of pro­pos­als stacked up at the En­ergy De­part­ment — and caught the at­ten­tion of en­vir­on­ment­al­ists.

Mi­chael Brune, the Si­erra Club’s ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, sought to parry the no­tion that gas ex­ports are a way to bol­ster Europe’s en­ergy se­cur­ity.

“The idea that we should pro­mote an in­creased de­pend­ence on an­oth­er volat­ile fossil fuel as a solu­tion to a long-stand­ing prob­lem re­flects an in­ab­il­ity to em­brace the idea that we have to fight cli­mate change ef­fect­ively,” he said on a call with re­port­ers Tues­day.

The White House has been more cir­cum­spect than some Cap­it­ol Hill Re­pub­lic­ans when it comes to gas ex­ports as a way to aid Ukraine, or Europe over­all, which re­lies on Rus­sia for al­most a third of its gas.

And sure, there are plenty of reas­ons to be: U.S. LNG ship­ments would not start flow­ing un­til next year at the soon­est, and there are in­fra­struc­ture con­straints in Europe, among oth­er bar­ri­ers.

Any­way U.S. ex­port­ers, crit­ics note, can fetch high­er prices in Asia than Europe, al­though boost­ers say that more mo­lecules on the glob­al mar­ket over­all trans­lates in­to more sup­plies avail­able to Europe.

But the White House non­ethe­less also ap­pears open to view­ing U.S. ex­ports as a long-term way to help lessen European re­li­ance on Rus­si­an gas, a lot of which is piped through Ukraine.

On Tues­day, Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden and ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, on the VP’s trip to East­ern Europe, made clear that en­ergy policy is a big part of the re­sponse to Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of the Crimean pen­in­sula.

“In the com­ing weeks, we’ll be meet­ing with our European part­ners to dis­cuss ways to fur­ther di­ver­si­fy their source and sup­plies of en­ergy. This will help im­prove en­ergy se­cur­ity and it will en­sure that no na­tion can use the sup­ply of gas as a polit­ic­al weapon against any oth­er na­tion,” Biden, in a poin­ted ref­er­ence to Rus­sia, said along­side Pol­ish Prime Min­is­ter Don­ald Tusk on Tues­day.

A num­ber of ideas are in play, deal­ing with en­ergy ef­fi­ciency and new sup­ply sources, to help re­duce re­li­ance on Rus­si­an gas in Ukraine and Europe more broadly.

Among them: Help­ing European coun­tries re­pro­duce the frack­ing-en­abled shale gas boom that has sent U.S. gas pro­duc­tion to re­cord levels.

“The U.S. has worked closely with the Poles, both in terms of tech­no­logy with our com­pan­ies, and in terms of their reg­u­lat­ory struc­ture in Po­land to ex­ploit shale re­serves,” a seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said.

It’s part of what could grow­ing European in­terest in frack­ing, which has been banned in sev­er­al na­tions in­clud­ing France and Bul­garia.

“The Rus­si­an in­va­sion of the Crimean Pen­in­sula is giv­ing Europe new en­thu­si­asm for frack­ing,” wrote Keith John­son in For­eign Policy last week.

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in the U.K., along with the East­ern European na­tions of Po­land, Ro­mania, and Ukraine have all ex­pressed in­terest in shale gas de­vel­op­ment, des­pite vary­ing de­grees of push­back from pub­lic health and safety ad­voc­ates.

On U.S. ex­ports, the seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial also hin­ted that the White House is sym­path­et­ic to the no­tion that U.S. gas ex­ports could even­tu­ally come in­to play.

“The United States is ob­vi­ously re­view­ing and con­sid­er­ing what we can and should do do­mest­ic­ally to serve both our in­terests and the in­terests of our European part­ners,” the of­fi­cial told re­port­ers en route to Lithuania, while cau­tion­ing that ex­ports are a “longer-term pro­pos­i­tion.”

But en­vir­on­ment­al­ists see ex­ports as an­oth­er cata­lyst for more U.S. frack­ing, and say LNG ex­ports worsen cli­mate change due to emis­sions from gas pro­duc­tion, trans­port, li­que­fac­tion, and ship­ping over­seas.

The En­ergy De­part­ment has ap­proved or con­di­tion­ally ap­proved six pro­pos­als to ship LNG to na­tions that lack form­al free-trade deals with the U.S. (those pro­pos­als are more heav­ily vet­ted). About two dozen oth­ers are un­der re­view.

On Tues­day, the Si­erra Club and 15 oth­er groups re­leased an open let­ter to Pres­id­ent Obama say­ing they’re “dis­turbed” by ad­min­is­tra­tion sup­port for frack­ing and LNG ex­ports.

“Emer­ging and cred­ible ana­lyses now show that ex­por­ted U.S. fracked gas is as harm­ful to the at­mo­sphere as the com­bus­tion of coal over­seas — if not worse,” states the let­ter from 350.org, Earth­hustice, En­vir­on­ment and Amer­ica and oth­er groups.

The cli­mate foot­print of nat­ur­al gas is heav­ily de­bated these days amid con­flict­ing stud­ies of the amount of the po­tent green­house gas meth­ane re­leased along the de­vel­op­ment chain, and com­pet­ing views about how man­age­able the leak­age is.

Brune said the let­ter — which fo­cuses in par­tic­u­lar on the planned Cove Point LNG pro­ject in Mary­land — was not planned in re­sponse to the European crisis and the pro-ex­port move­ment that it’s feed­ing.

But the let­ter’s un­veil­ing on the same day that White House of­fi­cials are talk­ing up the abil­ity of U.S. en­ergy to help Europe shows how the geo­pol­it­ic­al head­winds may now be blow­ing against the green move­ment.

Iron­ic­ally, Putin him­self has cri­ti­cized frack­ing. But at a time when Putin rising in the ranks of Amer­ica’s top pub­lic en­emies, his op­pos­i­tion is un­likely to do any­thing oth­er than boost frack­ing’s stand­ing.

Clare Foran contributed to this article.
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