The American natural gas revolution has boosted economic competitiveness, and helped reduce U.S. carbon emissions to their lowest levels in 20 years. The question is now whether the United States will leverage this energy bounty to advance its foreign policy goals during the most serious East-West crisis in a generation.
Russian’s intervention in Crimea and looming threats against eastern Ukraine underscore Europe’s energy vulnerability. Roughly 80 percent of Russian exported gas to the EU passes through pipelines in Ukraine, which Moscow has turned off twice in recent years.
A shale gas revolution in Europe could help to limit the EU’s energy vulnerability to Russia. But while there are great hopes for the safe and environmentally responsible development of unconventional gas in the UK, Poland, and elsewhere, a reliable source of shale gas in Europe may still be a decade away.
That is why Europe has turned to imports of liquified natural gas, tripling its imports in the last decade. Unfortunately, U.S. exports of LNG are not part of this equation. Under present law, the U.S. Department of Energy must approve the exports of LNG to countries lacking a free trade agreement with the United States, including NATO allies and members of the EU. That approval process is lengthy and can be opaque. The U.S.-EU trade agreement, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, is under active negotiation, but difficult issues remain, the talks are at an early stage, and it is unlikely that a treaty would be brought to the Senate for approval before the mid-term elections.
Enabling a steady flow of gas from the United States to Europe would benefit both regions — geopolitically, environmentally and economically. It would bolster transatlantic solidarity and help to form a united U.S.-EU response to Russian intervention in Crimea. The Obama administration’s efforts to gain support for economic sanctions against Russia will surely attract criticism from those Europeans who are concerned about Russian retaliation and exploitation of European dependency on Russian natural gas. 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.