Gas industry's use of Ukraine conflict to expand global reach continues its uninterrupted record of crisis opportunism
The way to beat Vladimir Putin is to flood the European market with fracked-in-the-USA natural gas, or so the industry would have us believe.
As part of escalating anti-Russian hysteria, two bills have been introduced in the U.S. Congress to fast-track liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports, all in the name of helping Europe wean itself from Putin’s fossil fuels while enhancing U.S. national security.
According to Cory Gardner, the Republican congressman who introduced the House of Representatives bill, “Opposing this legislation is like hanging up on a 911 call from our friends and allies.”
And that might be true – as long as your “friends and allies” work at Chevron and Shell and their emergency is the need to keep profits up amid dwindling supplies of conventional oil and gas.
For this ploy to work, it’s important not to look too closely at the details. Like the fact that much of the gas probably won’t make it to Europe – because what the bills allow is for gas to be sold on the world market to any country belonging to the World Trade Organization.
Or the fact that for years the industry has been selling the message that Americans must accept the risks to their land, water and air that come with hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in order to help their country achieve “energy independence.”
And now, suddenly and slyly, the goal has been switched to “energy security,” which apparently means selling a temporary glut of fracked gas on the world market, thereby creating energy dependencies abroad.
But most of all, it’s important not to notice that building the infrastructure necessary to export gas on this scale would take many years in permitting and construction.
By the time these massive industrial projects are up and running, Germany and Russia may well be fast friends. But by then, few will remember that the crisis in Crimea was the excuse seized upon by the gas industry to make its long-standing export dreams come true, regardless of the consequences to the local communities getting fracked or to the planet getting cooked.
I call this knack for exploiting crisis for private gain the shock doctrine, and it shows no signs of retreating: during times of crisis, under cover of emergencies real or manufactured, our elites are able to ram through unpopular policies that are detrimental to the majority. Plenty of industries are good at this ploy, but none is more adept at exploiting the rationality-arresting properties of crisis than the global gas sector.
For the past four years, the gas lobby has used the economic crisis in Europe to tell countries like Greece that the way out of debt and desperation is to open their beautiful and fragile seas to drilling. It has employed similar arguments to rationalize fracking across North America and the United Kingdom.
Now the crisis du jour, the conflict in Ukraine, is being used as a battering ram to knock down sensible restrictions on natural gas exports and push through a controversial free trade deal with Europe. It’s quite a deal: more corporate free trade polluting our economies, more heat-trapping gases polluting the atmosphere – all as a response to an energy crisis that is largely manufactured. It’s worth remembering – irony of ironies – that the crisis the natural gas industry has been most adept at exploiting is climate change itself.
Never mind that the industry’s singular solution to the climate crisis is to dramatically expand an extraction process in fracking that releases massive amounts of climate-destabilizing methane into our atmosphere. Methane is 34 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, according to the latest estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And that’s over a 100-year period, with methane’s power dwindling over time.
It’s far more relevant, argues Cornell University biochemist Robert Howarth, to look at the 15-to-20-year range, when methane has a global warming potential that is a staggering 86 to 100 times greater than carbon dioxide. And remember: you don’t build multibillion-dollar pieces of infrastructure unless you plan on using them for at least 40 years.
So we are responding to our warming planet by constructing a network of ultra-powerful atmospheric ovens. Are we mad?
The gas industry itself, in 1981, came up with the clever pitch that natural gas was a “bridge” to a clean energy future. That was 33 years ago.
And in 1988, the year that climatologist James Hansen warned Congress, in historic testimony, about the urgent problem of global warming, the American Gas Association began to explicitly frame its product as a response to the “greenhouse effect.”
The industry’s use of Ukraine to expand its global market under the banner of “energy security” must be seen in the context of this uninterrupted record of crisis opportunism. Only this time, many more of us know where true energy security lies. Thanks to the work of top researchers like Mark Jacobson and his Stanford team, we know that the world can, by 2030, power itself entirely with renewables. And thanks to the latest alarming reports from the IPCC, we know that doing so is now an existential imperative.
It’s up to Europeans to turn their desire for emancipation from Russian gas into a demand for an accelerated transition to renewables.
Such a transition – to which European nations are committed under the Kyoto protocol – can easily be sabotaged if the world market is flooded with cheap fossil fuels fracked from U.S. bedrock.
We simply can’t afford to be distracted by the natural gas industry’s latest crisis-fuelled marketing ploy.
A longer version of this column first appeared on The Guardian website.
Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, will be published in September 2014.