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Seeking a way to blame Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on President Biden, some prominent Republicans have been claiming that increasing U.S. production of fossil fuel energy would liberate Europe from its dependence on Russian gas and undermine Russia’s position in the conflict.
Experts in the economics of energy, however, say that U.S. energy production hasn’t been scaled back by Biden and that Europe’s only path to energy independence is to transition away from fossil fuels.
“It’s a deeply cynical ploy,” said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy watchdog. “These are the same exact talking points they've been using for 40 years, and whatever the situation, it shows we should drill more. I’m embarrassed for them to try to exploit a tragedy.”
The attack on Biden holds that because of his effort to pause new gas and oil leasing on federal land and waters in an effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change, Russian President Vladimir Putin was empowered, because 42 percent of Europe’s imported natural gas comes from Russia.
“You talk about weakness on the part of Joe Biden. He comes to office, and what does he do? He shuts down American energy production and greenlights Russian energy production,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Is it any wonder that Vladimir Putin feels emboldened to do whatever he wants to do?”
Earlier this week, Republican members of Congress such as Reps. Claudia Tenney and Nicole Malliotakis, both from New York, inveighed against restrictions on fossil fuel production, arguing that recent events prove that selling new oil and gas drilling leases on federal land would have prevented price shocks emanating from the conflict.
Especially in my district in New York State where responsible natural gas drilling could literally save our communities and provide energy security to our nation. https://t.co/0cNcdvmsjq
— Claudia Tenney (@claudiatenney) February 24, 2022
The most fanciful theory — that Putin could have actually been convinced not to follow through with his invasion of Ukraine merely by the threat of increased U.S. fossil fuel extraction — came from Fox News host Sean Hannity last Thursday. “If he really wants to squeeze Putin, there is a plan that we should be implementing, and this would work. … Joe needs to communicate to Vladimir immediately, should have done it on day one, that we will out-pump him, we will produce more energy than him, and we will get it to our allies in Western Europe quickly and more cheaply,” Hannity said.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a guest on the program, agreed that Biden’s energy policies had strengthened Putin’s hand. “We did the worst thing — we shut down American natural gas and crude oil production, giving Vladimir Putin 100 bucks a barrel or 93 bucks a barrel for the crude oil that's produced in Russia,” Pompeo said.
There are a few factual problems with these claims.
First, U.S. fossil fuel production has not been “shut down.” According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas production increased in 2021 and is forecast to increase further in 2022 and 2023, while U.S. oil production roughly held steady between 2020 and 2021 and is forecast to increase this year and next.
Despite his pledge to end new federal fossil fuel leasing, why hasn’t Biden reduced production? Primarily because it takes several years from the time a lease is sold until the fuel from it actually reaches the market. In between, seismological surveys are conducted, permits are issued, wells are drilled and connected to pipelines, and so on. So Biden’s federal fossil fuel leasing pause — which, in any case, has not taken effect because of a court order — has not had any effect on supply, and his administration is actually handing out drilling permits on existing leases faster than Donald Trump did.
Second, federal lands and waters account for only 22 percent of our oil production in the United States, and around 13 percent of our natural gas production. The rest is on private or state land, and Biden has not proposed, much less enacted, any restrictions on development there. Contrary to what some conservative pundits suggest, the president has not backed, much less enacted, a ban on fracking on nonfederal land.
Third, sending natural gas to Europe is no small feat. It must be liquefied, shipped across the Atlantic and regasified, making the final product more expensive and adding to its carbon footprint. So the United States could not necessarily provide gas to Europe more cheaply than Russia can via a pipeline such as Nord Stream 2.
According to a new report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a think tank, Europe has created the problem of overdependence on Russian gas by putting too much emphasis on building gas infrastructure. Instead, the report states, Europe should have shifted its portfolio to other sources that it can generate domestically, such as wind, solar and nuclear power.
“Instead of diversifying the EU’s sources of energy to replace gas, Europe has spent a great deal of time diversifying gas supply routes, particularly pipelines from Russia,” said Ana Maria Jaller-Makarewicz, IEEFA energy analyst for Europe and co-author of the report, in a statement that accompanied its release.
In an interview with Yahoo News, Jaller-Makarewicz noted that political instability is not the only risk to relying on imported gas. “Today it is a political situation, but in two years’ time it could be a weather situation, it could be another situation,” she said. “Europe has to find a way to solve its own situation right now, and it’s the dependency on gas, on natural gas itself, not on Russia.”
Jaller-Makarewicz warned that if the United States tried to replace the gas being supplied to Europe by Russia, it would take years to build out the infrastructure and expand the supply, by which time Europe may have reduced its demand for gas as the world looks to transition away from fossil fuels in order to slow the pace of climate change.
“If you say the U.S. should pump more gas or send more gas, it’s not going to happen immediately,” she said. “The predictions for the future is that demand for gas is going to decline, and Europe is predicting a 37 percent dip in 10 years' time, because of more renewables in the whole system and because of energy efficiency.” If the U.S. builds more liquefied natural gas export terminals, they could be “stranded assets in the future,” meaning they would be underutilized and not make back the cost of investment.
Most important, experts say, the whole notion that energy security can be obtained while depending on fossil fuels is misguided. Oil, for example, is a globally traded commodity. Oil drilled in the United States can be bought by Chinese or Japanese consumers rather than American or European ones. Increasing U.S. oil production reduces the price paid by U.S. or European consumers only insofar as it changes the balance between global supply and demand.
“The exploration activities in these [federal] areas are marginal. They're not going to have an appreciable impact on domestic or global supply-demand balances,” said Slocum.
Ultimately, Slocum argued, the attack line against Biden is really intended to improve the chances of getting more favorable actions from the administration on regulations that will affect the fossil fuel industry in the long run, such as on public lands extraction or on methane leakage in oil and gas drilling.
“It’s more to maintain pressure on the Biden administration to obtain concessions on other issues they care about,” said Slocum. “It’s coming up with a simple-to-understand, overarching policy narrative that actually doesn't have a whole lot of relationship with facts on the ground.”