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Congress Wants to Frack the US to Save Ukraine

The Speaker of the House is spearheading a deeply cynical scheme that calls for more drilling and shipping natural gas to Europe—but the only real benefactor is the oil industry.

by Brian Merchant
Mar 10 2014, 6:10pm
Image: Flickr

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) has put forward a humble, patriotic plan he and his colleagues say can curtail Russian military belligerence in Ukraine. The US, Boehner argues, should double down on oil and gas drilling, and ship a bunch of gas to Europe—and pronto. Problem is, the Speaker knows he won't be able to get the fossil fuel there for at least a year—too late, perhaps, to aid Ukraine, but in plenty of time to make for a potentially formidable payday for the gas and oil industry.

"In response to Mr. Putin's aggression in Ukraine, President Obama should announce a series of steps that will dramatically expand production of American-made energy, beginning with lifting this de facto ban on exports of US-produced liquefied natural gas," Boehner writes in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal.

The much-discussed plan, put forward by Boehner and congressional Republicans, focuses on the idea that Europe is afraid to confront Russia, because it provides so much of its energy, and the fact that Russia could pull the plug on Ukraine's supply outright. The Speaker believes that the US government hasn't been approving new natural gas projects, pipelines, and export facilities quickly enough—the process of reviewing these projects to make sure they don't emit too much harmful pollution or degrade the environment amounts to a "ban," in his words. But if we just got on with it, and exported that gas to Europe, it could turn the tide in Ukraine, he says.

It's true that Europe is hesitant to anger Russia, even when it invades a sovereign nation, because it gets a full one-third of its natural gas from the former Soviet Republic, and in the past has threatened to turn off the pump. If it were also true that exporting enough American gas to blunt Russia's influence were a physically and economically feasible option, Boehner may have a valid argument. But it's not. The plan is deeply disingenuous; it amounts to a cynical ploy to score political points while enriching the gas and oil companies that comprise his top campaign donors

Here's the crux of Boehner's argument: 

The U.S. has abundant supplies of natural gas, but in stark contrast to Russia, the amount of natural gas we produce and export barely scratches the surface of its potential. That's attributable in large part to the U.S. Department of Energy, which maintains an approval process that is excruciatingly slow and amounts to a de facto ban on American natural-gas exports—a situation that Mr. Putin has happily exploited to finance his geopolitical goals.

According to the Energy Department's own website, only six applications for U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) have been approved over the past three years, while 24 applications are pending. This means Washington is doing as little as possible in an area in which we should be doing the opposite. Consequently, our allies in Europe and elsewhere have little choice but to turn to Russia for their energy needs.

By not exporting our natural gas, Boehner says, America has failed the world; we've sent our allies into Russia's open, gassy arms. Our cumbersome environmental review process is letting Russia—Russia!—outmaneuver us on the world's stage, and directly threatening nations like Ukraine. 

Fracking, as you may know, has transformed the US's oil and gas industry, which is seeing its biggest domestic boom in decades. As such, the industry is champing at the bit to build new ways to bring the gas to foreign markets (right now we're using the bulk of it to run our power plants locally). The foremost way the industry wants to do this is by shipping out liquefied natural gas, or LNG, to buyers around the world. Big oil and gas has been pressuring the government to permit the practice. Their allies in Congress are trying to help. According to Reuters, "Several lawmakers, including Rep. Cory Gardner, a Republican from natural gas-rich Colorado, introduced bills this week to try to speed up the DOE approvals."

But, writing in Politico, Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and senior adviser to the United States Energy Security Council, explains that "the United States won’t have its first LNG export terminal in operation until late 2015 at the very earliest; that all of its approved gas exports are already committed to long-term contracts; and that Ukraine does not even have a single terminal for receiving LNG."

We simply don't have the infrastructure necessary to get gas to Europe or the Ukraine right now. And if we did, it'd be crazy expensive.

Boehner knows this. He also knows that the public doesn't, and probably won't care enough to investigate. He also knows that if those export terminals get approved, the bulk of the gas won't be shipped anywhere near Ukraine: it will go to Japan, India, and Southeast Asian countries that are natural gas-poor, and willing to pay more for the stuff than Europe. That's why he also piles on at the end of his plan: Approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline he says, and let's have some more coal while we're at it. The Washington Post calls the plan "a grab bag of oil industry and GOP priorities," and that's exactly what it is—dressed up to appear as though it would somehow aid a nation in crisis. 

Keystone has nothing to do with Ukraine or Europe—it's just a pipeline Republicans and oil companies are eager to see approved. Lumping it in with the rest of the energy plan maybe its most pointedly cynical move. Yet even the gas exporting, the plan's central plank, is mostly misdirection.

“Can you imagine situations where US gas could be a useful buffer?" the Council on Foreign Relations' energy expert Michael Levi told the Post. "Yes. Is this the killer app? Absolutely not ... And is this something the US can wield as a weapon? No.”

So Boehner and his colleagues are basically using what appears on paper to be sound logic to permanently break down the barriers to shipping the fossil fuels around the world—even the though the absolute soonest the US could feasibly get gas to Europe would be 2015. And we'd still have no way, even then, to get it to Ukraine. Boehner and his ilk are using the nation's deepening crisis as a talking point to promote a $15 billion-a-year business plan.

Exploiting crises for profit is nothing new to politics, of course. But it never stops being ugly.