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Ukraine crisis may speed up fracked natural gas exports to Europe

Russian and Ukrainian warships are facing in Crimea off over a geopolitical tug of war between Russia and the West
Russian and Ukrainian warships are facing in Crimea off over a geopolitical tug of war between Russia and the West
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As the crisis in the Ukraine deepens with Russia's invasion of Crimea and other military maneuvers, several members of the US Congress have called on the Obama Administration to start Natural Gas exports. On Thursday, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said in a statement "Colorado and our nation's clean-burning and job-creating natural gas has an important role to play in strengthening global security. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine — and Russia's threat to use its natural gas exports as a cudgel there — shows why we need to responsibly develop our natural gas reserves and expand our ability to export this resource abroad. This common-sense bill [the American Job Creation and Strategic Alliances LNG Act] will strengthen our economy at home and help Colorado companies and small businesses across America bolster our presence abroad." This statement, and similar ones by other US Government leaders, illustrate the geopolitical struggle between Russia, the EU and the US, as well as a fracking-fueled boom in natural gas that allows the US to even ponder such a move.

A few years ago pundits were bemoaning the decline of natural gas and oil production in the US and elsewhere. Thanks to hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking), the US is enjoying a boom in fossil fuel production. It comes at the cost of environmental degradation, continued dependence on climate-change-causing fossil fuels, greater risk of earthquakes, and more.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas has introduced similar legislation to Sen. Udall's, which would fast-track consideration of LNG export terminals in the US. Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) also said “One immediate step the president can and should take is to dramatically expedite the approval of U.S. exports of natural gas."

The problem with this idea is that LNG export terminals cannot be built overnight. According to a NY Times article, the US has long had a ban on natural gas exports, but because the US now has abundant natural gas (again, thanks to fracking) the US Energy Department is now issuing permits for such terminals. The first will begin operation in late 2015, and others will begin operation in 2017 or later. By that time this crisis over Ukraine will be long resolved one way or another, therefore this push to expedite LNG export terminals cannot help Ukraine. Instead, that the fossil fuel companies simply hope to use the crisis to achieve a long-range plan.

The Obama Administration has been working for years now to export fracking technology to countries all around the world, targeting any location where there's a frackable shale deposit. The program is run by the US State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources, headed by Carlos Pascual, a former American ambassador to Ukraine, and its Unconventional Gas Technical Engagement Program.

The US government's geopolitical goal is to undermine Russia's dominance over Europe because it is Russia's gas fields that, currently, supply a large portion of Europe's natural gas needs. That natural gas is delivered through pipelines criss-crossing Europe, the bulk of which cross Ukraine. Several times over the last 10 years Russia felt it necessary to cut off natural gas supply to Ukraine, and hence to Europe, because of a power struggle between Russia and Ukraine.

In light of this, the European Union and the US are working to diversify Europe's natural gas sources. One potential source is natural gas that's now abundant in the US, thanks to fracking. A report by the Congressional Research Service, Europe’s Energy Security: Options and Challenges to Natural Gas Supply Diversification, describes Europe's energy security as a "US National Interest. Recall that the U.S. tends to be ready to go to war over national interest's.

Another potential source is Ukraine itself, with its two large shale formations. The country already hafes the pipelines necessary to deliver natural gas to Europe, and fracking those shale formations would allow Ukraine to become a major natural gas supplier to Europe.

Unless, that is, Russia manages to prevent Ukraine from engaging with the European Union.

By invading Crimea and otherwise threatening Ukraine, thereby risking direct conflict with the U.S., is Russia altruistically seeking to protect ethnic Russian's living in Ukraine? No.