Why Exporting Natural Gas Isn’t A Simple Solution To The Russia Problem

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"Why Exporting Natural Gas Isn’t A Simple Solution To The Russia Problem"

A Russian construction worker at the Nord Stream pipeline.

A Russian construction worker at the Nord Stream pipeline.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky, file

As the conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues with no end in sight, the search for actions that could weaken Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence in the region has international leaders, members of Congress and numerous editorials calling for the U.S. to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe. The natural gas industry is predictably pleased. Experts, however, counter that exporting natural gas to Europe would be costly, time-consuming, environmentally risky and, in the end, unlikely to have a significant impact on Russia.

On Wednesday, the U.S. and EU issued a joint statement affirming their partnership and common interest in wielding energy resources as a diplomatic tool. “The situation in Ukraine proves the need to reinforce energy security in Europe, and we are considering new collaborative efforts to achieve this goal,” the statement reads. “We welcome the prospect of U.S. LNG exports in the future since additional global supplies will benefit Europe and other strategic partners.”

“Expediting the approval of U.S. natural gas exports would send a clear signal that Russia’s energy stranglehold on Europe will not continue, and just as important, it would create more American jobs and help more Americans as they face the squeeze of not enough jobs and not enough increase in wages,” Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) said at a Tuesday press conference. Several bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate to speed LNG exports, notably by rivals in the hotly contested Colorado Senate race, Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) and Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO).

Using natural gas as a tool to undercut Russia’s influence in the region seems promising at the outset — Ukraine relies heavily on Russia for its natural gas supplies and because a significant portion of the pipelines run from Russia through Ukraine, so does the rest of Europe. The U.S. is in the midst of a domestic fossil fuel boom, so why not just send a bunch of natural gas over there?

The reality is a lot more complex. “While the prospect of U.S. energy exports could usefully reduce Russian energy export revenues, U.S. exports will not displace Russia from its dominant position in the European market; claiming otherwise reduces U.S. credibility,” Michael Levi, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, explained in testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Relations Wednesday.

The first issue, Levi explains, is infrastructure. Significant construction would need to occur on both ends and “unless European companies build a large number of LNG terminals and pipelines and then idle them — something that profit-seeking companies rarely do on purpose — there will be limited capacity to absorb a sudden influx of U.S. LNG in a crisis.”

Furthermore, because Russian gas is significantly cheaper than delivered U.S. LNG and American producers wouldn’t be willing to sell their product at a loss just to hurt Russia, it’s unlikely the U.S. could diminish Russia’s share of the European market in any meaningful way.

And because exporting natural gas would increase demand, gas prices in the U.S. would go up — something Levi points out would hit lower-income Americans the hardest.

Increased demand also means more drilling and with that, more of the environmental concerns that have already driven opposition to natural gas production both in the U.S. and Europe. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process that involves injecting a high-pressure stream of chemicals and water into rock formations to release the oil and gas deposits trapped within, has drawn the ire of communities around the U.S. for the threat it poses to air and water quality and public health.

And what of the climate impact? Natural gas is often touted for being less damaging to the climate than burning coal, for example. However, natural gas is mostly methane — an extremely potent greenhouse gas that traps 86 times as much heat as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. And as Joe Romm points out, methane leakage from natural gas production is nothing to ignore. According to a recent Stanford study, “a review of more than 200 earlier studies confirms that U.S. emissions of methane are considerably higher than official estimates. Leaks from the nation’s natural gas system are an important part of the problem.”

And Romm explains that “the situation is even worse with liquefied natural gas (LNG) because the LNG life-cycle shown above is itself so energy intensive, consuming a considerable amount of natural gas and transportation fuel.” A 2009 report by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission found that the extra greenhouse gas emissions from the entire cycle, including shipping, “can equal 30 percent or more of combustion emissions.”

With the approval of the Jordan Cove export facility in Oregon this week, seven permits have now been approved by the Department of Energy for export facilities in the U.S. — a rate Boehner described as “excruciatingly slow” and “amount[ing] to a de facto ban on American natural gas exports.”

Levi argues that there are benefits to exporting natural gas — increased energy security, an open global trading system — but claims that exports could be a serious weapon against Russia “have consistently been overstated.”

“The Russians understand this empty threat. We have no LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas] export facilities, Ukraine has no LNG import facilities, other than that — it’s a great idea,” Edward Chow, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic International Studies, told TIME.

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