Does Russia have the U.S. over a barrel? Maybe. Maybe not. The key to the West countering Russia’s drive to reassemble the boundaries of the old Soviet Union has much to do with using oil and gas policy as an alternative to military force. It is not so simple, though. There are unintended consequences, some good, some bad. It will force us even more to weigh whether national interest is more important than being a good custodian of planet Earth.
Asking Europe to refuse to buy Russian oil and gas works only if they could get their energy from other sources. The U.S. is approaching energy independence; Europe has limited resources of their own. Russia, with control over the oil and gas pipelines shut off valves, can retaliate against European sanctions in a painful way since Europe gets a third of their energy from Russia. We can also expect that any threat to buy less oil and gas will result in Russia seeking markets elsewhere, since much of their economy depends on sales of oil and gas to Europe.
Oil has always driven much U.S. military and foreign policy, including U.S.’s costly entanglements in the middle east. It would be lovely never to rely on that part of the world again for energy or for our Western European allies to be chained to Russia’s pipelines.
There is good news and bad news: The Ukraine crisis will increase pressure for Europe to ignore environmental consequences of using fossil fuels, such as coal in the short run, and to rely on more renewable alternatives in the long term, though Europe is already ahead of us in the use of wind and solar. Natural gas from the United States can be a less damaging fuel, helpful in the intermediate period, but transporting it to Europe has its own set of problems.
Should we throw the environment under the bus for national security interests? While compromises and tradeoffs weaken the effectiveness of both concerns, they are still worth considering. The pressure will be on to develop ports and processing facilities to ship our natural gas surplus in liquefied form (LNG) to Europe so they reduce their reliance on Russia energy. We should do it. This is not a short-term fix, since the infrastructure and laws allowing this are not yet in place.
Should we approve the Keystone Pipeline? Yes. Canadian oil it carries, as polluting as it is, could help allies more easily free themselves from Russian oil since tankers in the Gulf ports have the ability to serve Europe. A note to environmentalists: Stopping Keystone will not stop Canadian oil sands production, since Canadians can ship it to ports by rail or build a pipeline to the Pacific.
We should develop less environmentally damaging natural gas as an intermediate bridge to a fossil fuel-less future in both the U.S, and Europe, with some tradeoffs. Less sensitive federal lands can be opened to natural gas drilling, keeping hands off national parks and national forests. While opposing a statewide fracking ban, we should support the smaller impact of municipal bans. We should enforce existing environmental laws with vigor and promote renewable energy, from carbon taxes to subsidies.