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.

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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.

Some NATO allies are worried about announced cutbacks to the size of the U.S. army in Europe. At a time when security encompasses much more than boots on the ground, allowing the EU to import U.S. gas would be a tangible sign of America’s continued commitment to the region.

Gas exports can also help the United States and Europe advance their shared goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Today the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany are three of the top four destinations for U.S. coal exports. Yet natural gas, when burned, emits only half the carbon dioxide of coal. To deliver the full climate promise, the U.S. must upgrade its domestic gas infrastructure, developing more efficient drilling techniques and building new pipelines. Those steps would reduce leaks of unburned gas as methane, which has 23 times greater greenhouse gas impact than natural gas that is burned.

Natural gas can also help increase the amount of renewable energy that enters the European grid. Natural gas plants can start up and shut down much more rapidly and cheaply to adjust to intermittent wind and solar production than either coal or nuclear power. In this way, too, gas exports can be an important component in meeting the EU’s renewable energy and emissions targets.

As the administration prepares to roll out a series of targeted U.S. sanctions against Russia, President Obama should use the authority of the presidency to direct the Department of Energy to speed approval of LNG exports to NATO allies, pending the hoped-for conclusion of a comprehensive trade deal with Europe.

The U.S. energy boom has helped foster America’s economic rebound, while advancing our climate goals. Now is the time to use America’s energy prowess to foster transatlantic unity by enabling U.S. gas exports to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy.

PHOTOS: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), British Prime Minister David Cameron (C) and U.S. President Barack Obama take part in a group photo for the G8 Summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 18, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Hess natural gas processing plant is seen outside of Williston, North Dakota March 12, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton