Russia's invasion of Ukraine could set back fight against climate change — or turbocharge it

There are few subjects on which most Democrats and Republicans agree, but Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has created at least two sources of bipartisan consensus: that Russia should be punished for its actions and that the West’s ability to do so effectively is hamstrung by Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and oil.

As soon as the conversation pivots to what to do about that dependence, however, the answer splits along the usual partisan lines, with Republicans and the oil and gas industry calling for more U.S. production of fossil fuels, and environmentalists and Democrats arguing that the war demonstrates the need to immediately transition to cleaner sources of energy such as wind and solar power.

On Wednesday, two Republican senators, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, sent President Biden a letter outlining steps he could take to boost U.S. oil and gas production. “Joe Biden has given up the best defense we had against Putin’s evil vision for the world — energy independence,” Blackburn said. “We need to make America energy independent again. It’s time to divest from Russian energy and stop funding Putin’s war, and reauthorize the Keystone Pipeline.”

The route of the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline
The route of the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline lies idle through a farmer's field near Oyen, Alberta, Canada. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

In response, some Democrats have said that not only would building new fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL oil pipeline worsen climate change, it would have little if any effect on U.S. energy independence. Even if the U.S. produces more than it consumes, if it remains a large consumer of oil and gas it is vulnerable to price spikes caused by foreign supply disruptions.

Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., told The Hill this week that instead of trying to produce more fossil fuels, Congress should pass Biden’s Build Back Better proposal to invest in deploying clean energy, electric vehicles and energy efficiency improvements. “If we make our vehicles more efficient, if we make our homes more efficient — that reduces the need for oil and gas regardless of the source,” Casten said.

Countering Russian aggression toward its neighbors is not the only thing that’s at stake in this debate, as the effort to prevent catastrophic climate change may hinge on how the Western democracies — which produce a disproportionately large share of the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change — respond to the current crisis.

A Ukrainian militiaman helps a child across a bridge
A Ukrainian militiaman helps a child across a bridge destroyed by artillery on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in order to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius or more above preindustrial levels — the marker that scientists say is necessary to avoid massive disasters such as the inundation of major cities — carbon emissions must decline by 45 percent by 2030. But current national commitments have the world on pace to actually increase emissions by 14 percent in this decade. Depending on how nations react to the war, that huge gap between what science says should be done and what humanity is actually doing could be narrowed or widened.

Germany, for instance, has moved up its target date for eliminating fossil fuels from its energy portfolio from 2040 to 2035. But Germany’s decision — made in the wake of the 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant — to shutter its nuclear power plants by 2022 makes it hard for the country to swiftly cut back on gas imports.

The United States and its allies have imposed economic sanctions on Russia, but they have not committed to stop buying Russian fossil fuels. Sanctioning those industries would strengthen the West’s hand and weaken Russia’s, but Europe needs to keep its lights on, its cars running and its furnaces boiling.

A liquefied natural gas plant in the village of Prigorodnoye, Russia
A liquefied natural gas plant in the village of Prigorodnoye, Russia. (Sergei Krasnoukhov/Tass via Getty Images)

Environmental activists have also condemned the invasion while arguing that fossil fuels are part of the underlying problem. “This war is inherently linked to fossil fuel dependency, and Putin’s power is very much tied to the fossil fuel industry — which, on the other hand, has led to the climate crisis,” Dominika Lasota, a Warsaw-based climate justice activist with the youth group Fridays for Future, told Yahoo News. Fridays for Future organized demonstrations against the war in cities around the world on Thursday. “We also want to make a strong mark on the fact that fossil fuels are endangering life on the planet, be it through the climate crisis or conflicts like this,” Lasota said.

In the short term, however, there’s not much that can be done to replace a dependence on Russian oil with renewable energy, since any measure to rebalance Europe’s energy portfolio will require years of building up the infrastructure — whether it’s liquefied natural gas export terminals in the United States or wind turbines in Austria.

“It’s not so simple to just say, ‘OK, overnight, now we’re going to suddenly switch and no longer going to be dependent on natural gas from Russia,’ or fossil fuels in general,” Pete Ogden, vice president for energy, climate and the environment at the U.N. Foundation, told Yahoo News. “Right now, you’re seeing that vulnerability exposed and there not being easy, short-term fixes to that problem.”

Ogden, like other environmental experts, believes the Russia-Ukraine war should encourage other countries to transition as quickly as possible to electrified transportation and clean generation of electricity to avoid being subject to the whims of a dictator who wields fossil fuels as a weapon.

Wind turbines
Wind turbines in the Styrian Alps, Austria. (Lisi Niesner/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“We see this all the time: Oil prices go up, and until we actually have made the transition [from] internal combustion vehicles into electric vehicles, we’re not going to have easy alternatives when prices spike, whether due to supply disruption or just market volatility,” Ogden said. “Clearly, the path to greater energy security in the long term is to transition away from fossil fuel dependence. And that’s not just true for the Europeans.”

But the fossil fuel industry and its allies in the Republican Party argue that if the Biden administration deregulated oil and gas production, it would strengthen the West’s hand in dealing with Putin. Last week, American Petroleum Institute president Mike Sommers wrote a blog post complaining that “the administration continues to block U.S. energy production.” API, a trade association of gas and oil companies, called for the federal government to expand oil and gas drilling on federal land, streamline the permitting process for new natural gas pipelines and open more offshore areas to drilling.

“At a time of geopolitical strife, America should deploy its ample energy abundance — not restrict it,” Sommers wrote.

“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 on the same day at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Is it any wonder that Vladimir Putin feels emboldened to do whatever he wants to do?”

In fact, U.S. oil and gas production remains at or near record highs, and has not dropped since Biden took office. Biden’s proposals to curtail federal fossil fuel leasing have not yet had any effect on production, and less than one-quarter of gas and oil production happens on federal lands and waters.

The pier at Dominion's Cove Point liquefied natural gas plant on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay.
The pier at Dominion's Cove Point liquefied natural gas plant on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay in 2014. (Timothy Gardner/Reuters)

Meanwhile, the IPCC’s latest report — a frightening litany of harmful effects on humans that climate change is already having or soon will have if no action is taken — was released Monday morning, but media coverage was muted by the intense focus on Russia and Ukraine.

On Thursday, a coalition of moderates from both parties, including Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, introduced a bill that would ban U.S. imports of Russian oil. Green New Deal author Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., has an alternative bill that would do the same but also develop a strategy to prioritize clean energy.

“American fossil fuel companies helped fuel Putin’s despicable war on Ukraine to the tune of billions, propping up the ‘oil-garchs’ and cronies that keep him in power,” Markey said in a statement. “There is no separating Russian oil from the corruption and human rights abuses of the Putin regime."

Biden has, however, been notably less vocal about climate change in recent weeks. As attention has shifted toward Ukraine, he hasn’t made the connection between the conflict and fossil fuel dependence that Casten and environmental activists have. In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Biden mentioned climate change only in passing, and not in reference to the war.

In the address, he announced that the U.S. will release 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, with another 30 billion barrels to be released by 30 other countries, to stabilize oil prices.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre warned that cutting off Russian oil imports could worsen an ongoing oil price spike.

“We don’t have a strategic interest in reducing the global supply of energy,” she told reporters traveling on Air Force One on Wednesday. “That would raise prices at the gas pump for Americans."

Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, echoed that concern in an interview with NBC News on Wednesday. “The president last night was trying to insulate the American citizen, the American consumer, from suffering too much,” said Beyer. “And I think the fear from the White House ... is that if you cut off Russian oil, you could make people suffer too much and you could weaken our resolve to be a strong supporter of Ukraine.”

Joe Biden with Kamala Harris, left, and Nancy Pelosi
President Biden delivering the State of the Union address on Tuesday. (Saul Loeb/Pool via AP)

The reluctance to change long-term U.S. energy policy in response to the current crisis in Ukraine is understandable, since neither passing Build Back Better nor approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline will actually change the outcome in Ukraine, nor will a U.S. boycott of Russian oil, since Russia can still sell its oil elsewhere. What’s really at stake isn’t the West’s leverage against Russia in 2022, it’s the world’s dependence on fossil fuel producers in the coming years, because selling new fossil fuel leases or approving new pipelines locks in future fossil fuel development. Conversely, beginning the process of permitting and purchasing the means of producing energy from sources like wind and sun would ensure a cleaner energy portfolio in the latter half of this decade.

And so, ironically, the energy policy responses to this sudden crisis won’t likely make a difference to the fate of Ukraine but could have an enormous impact on the fate of the Earth.

“At the end of the day, the idea that we’re going to find energy independence at the bottom of an oil barrel is not credible,” Ogden of the U.N. Foundation said.

_____

Global temperatures are on the rise and have been for decades. Step inside the data and see the magnitude of climate change.