Opinion

The Great Debate

To blunt Russia, time for American natural gas diplomacy

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.

The Case Against Natural Gas Exports

President Barack Obama has made middle-class jobs and natural gas two of his top second-term policy objectives. Both could be undermined if his Department of Energy (DOE) continues to approve gas industry applications for exporting American gas.

There is already a move in Congress to remove DOE’s authority, so approvals can move even faster, and the oil and gas industry has thrown all its lobbying muscle behind this effort to steamroll through the permission process.

Natural gas, the cleanest of the hydrocarbon-based fuels, has long been a primary choice for heating and power generation, as well as an essential raw material, or “feedstock,” for a vast range of chemistry-based products, including every kind of plastic, synthetic cloth and high-tech composite materials. When gas supplies came under pressure in the late 1990s, the chemical industry — and most other energy-dependent U.S. heavy manufacturers — were hard hit.

The architecture of abundance: Building energy infrastructure

For the past 40 years, energy policymakers in Washington worried about a seemingly intractable menace: managing the risks of scarce fossil fuels.

Energy supply issues have been nettlesome at least since the Nixon administration, often producing long gasoline lines, sluggish economic growth, dependence on unstable foreign regimes and even backlash at the ballot box. Most policy solutions — including government subsidies, exotic fuel mandates, even restructuring the Department of Energy — were all oriented around this scarcity paradigm.

That was then. Today, technological innovations like horizontal drilling, better seismic imaging and hydraulic fracturing have done what new laws and regulations never could. We now produce massive amounts of North American energy that will lower prices for consumers, create a domestic manufacturing renaissance and even influence geopolitical alignments.

The darkness behind fracking’s silver lining

A natural gas pipeline under construction near East Smithfield in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, Jan. 7, 2012. REUTERS/Les Stone

Climate change may have reached the point of no return last month.

CO2 levels in the atmosphere topped 400 parts per million on May 19, for the first time since the Pleistocene era, over 2.5 million years ago. President Barack Obama’s historic speech on climate change today highlights his growing focus on this issue for his second term.

Climate scientists have long regarded that 400 number as the symbolic threshold. One step beyond, and it would be virtually impossible to put the brake on human-generated climate change. The bad news escalated last week when the International Energy Agency reported that global emissions of carbon dioxide rose 1.4 percent in 2012, the largest annual increase on record.

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