On the heels of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a dire new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate justice activists are pressuring President Joe Biden to do whatever he can to accelerate a just transition to renewable energy through more aggressive executive action ahead of this evening’s State of the Union address.
They’re also pushing back against the oil and gas industry lobby and Republicans, who have pounced on the Ukraine crisis to push for expansion of fracked gas, so-called liquified natural gas (LNG), exports and infrastructure buildout under the guise of “energy independence.”
The American Petroleum Institute (API), a powerful industry lobbying group, joined gas giant Cheniere Energy CEO Jack Fusco last week in arguing that fighting in Ukraine is likely to spur increases in medium and long-term extraction contracts. News outlets, conservative commentators and lawmakers piled on, blaming Russia’s Ukraine invasion on modest shifts to renewable energy and likewise calling for increased fracking — despite the fact that extraction rates in the United States are already nearing their limit.
Pointing to the ways in which Big Oil has helped fuel and profit off the conflict in Ukraine, climate activists are countering that true energy independence also means independence from fossil fuel companies that, historically, have been more than eager to support petrostate autocrats like Russian President Vladimir Putin. While BP and Shell recently dumped decades-long Russian investments, Exxon Mobil continues to have a 30 percent stake in an oil and gas project it operates alongside two affiliates of Russia’s largest oil company, Rosneft — the main fuel supplier for tanks and airplanes currently being used to invade Ukraine.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki laid out the administration’s response to the right-wing narrative pushing oil and gas expansion on ABC News’s “This Week” Sunday, saying that the crisis in Ukraine instead shows the necessity of President Biden’s plans to massively increase clean energy and characterizing calls to lift restrictions on oil drilling on federal lands or build the Keystone XL pipeline a “misdiagnosis.”
But Oil Change International Senior Campaigner Collin Rees told Truthout that while Psaki’s rhetoric and President Biden’s warning to oil and gas companies last week to “not exploit this moment to hike their prices to raise profits,” was solid messaging, it’s also likely a political calculation based on current gas prices being “exceptionally unpopular.” Rees says when it comes to the question of whether the Biden administration will follow its rhetoric with real action, “the proof will be in the pudding.”
Moreover, the fact that Biden strategically avoided certain oil and gas assets when targeting sanctions against the Russian government further highlights the U.S. and Europe’s energy vulnerability. Asked on ABC’s “This Week” whether Biden would be open to lifting restrictions on U.S. oil extraction, Psaki again emphasized Biden’s “carefully crafted sanctions” that “maximize the impact” and consequences for Putin, while “minimizing the impact” on Americans and the rest of the world — namely by not targeting Russian oil and gas.
While Rees and other environmental activists don’t anticipate that the climate emergency will play a central role in tonight’s State of the Union address, they will be monitoring Biden’s address for mention of the latest IPCC report, as well as his messaging on foreign policy and Ukraine to see whether he gives a nod to energy independence, and if so, in what way.
“When there are moments of national crisis, there’s often a bit of a rally-around-the-flag moment. There’s a recognition that the president of the United States has a lot of power to do things, and there are many demands being made of the administration,” Rees tells Truthout. “One thing we want to do is to emphasize that that’s true on climate as well as national security and conflict…. [The Ukraine conflict] cannot be an excuse to lock in [fossil fuel expansion], or you’re just going to lock in future conflict like this.”
Climate activists are seizing on this week’s IPCC report to reinforce their point. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called the report, written by more than 270 researchers from 67 countries, “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.” The report finds that the Earth’s temperature has already risen by 1.09 degrees Celsius and is on track to blow past the Paris Agreement limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next few decades.
The latest IPCC report also comes on the heels of another analysis from the International Energy Agency (IEA) showing that emissions of planet-warming methane from fossil fuel extraction are 70 percent higher than the official figure provided by governments worldwide. The IPCC and IEA reports underscore the dire need to drastically reduce fracked gas extraction operations, which routinely emit methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Yet, the U.S. oil and gas industry has long sought to promote U.S.-sourced LNG as a “solution” to Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels — a strategy that has found allies in the U.S. State Department, including former LNG executive and oil lobbyist Amos Hochstein, the State Department’s top international energy diplomat. In a February 17 post at API, for instance, API blogger Mark Green outlines how U.S. LNG exports to Europe at the start of 2022 were higher than those from Russia, a stat he calls “significant — for Europe’s safety and global stability.”
But approving more LNG export infrastructure is unlikely to have any direct effect on the current conflict as construction of additional terminals would take years and billions of dollars, while also locking the U.S. into increased rates of extraction. There’s also no guarantee U.S. fracked gas will go to Ukraine or any European country, as it frequently fetches a higher price in Asia.
“There’s been a narrative here pushed by the U.S. fracking industry that American gas, which they dubbed ‘freedom gas’ under the previous administration, is going to come to Europe’s rescue and deliver it from depending on Putin,” says Zorka Milin, a senior advisor at Global Witness focusing transparency and accountability in fossil fuel extraction in Europe and the U.S. The global LNG market’s volatility and soaring prices show that the best way to stand up to Putin, Milin says, “is really to end reliance on gas altogether, not just to swap it with … gas that’s shipped on tankers from the U.S.”
Moreover, as The Intercept reports, Moscow’s partnership with Saudi Arabia has grown dramatically in recent years, giving the world’s the two largest oil producers an unprecedented ability to collude in oil export decisions, further driving up market volatility and prices, as the Russian state profits from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s refusal to increase oil extraction. In September 2016, Saudi Arabia signed an agreement with Russia that paved the way for the country to eventually join the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Plus, a major economic victory for Putin’s government. The moves have given the Russian state economic advantages that have factored into its decision invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian state isn’t the only interest profiting from high oil and gas prices. Such market manipulation by OPEC Plus also benefits U.S. oil giants like Exxon Mobil, which continues to generate billions for Russia as one of its largest foreign investors, belying the narrative that what’s good for the U.S. fracked gas industry is also necessarily good for U.S. energy security and “independence.”
Some members of Congress have also profited from this narrative. Several Congress members who backed the same story line during Putin’s play for the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and introduced bills to expedite approval of LNG export permits have received large amounts of campaign cash from the oil and gas industry.
“We’ve been told repeatedly by API that the boom in American fracked gas was going to be a powerful weapon against Putin, when in fact, it turns out quite the opposite,” Milin tells Truthout. “Far from being a strong point, it’s actually a weak point in the U.S. foreign policy arsenal. The role that U.S. fracked gas plays and the partnerships that some of these companies have in Russia are actually weakening the hand that the U.S. and other Western countries have at the moment.”
Moreover, the U.S. effort to bolster fossil fuel infrastructure in Europe that provides alternatives to Russian gas routes, like the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, so far has proved an ineffective counter to Moscow’s LNG prowess, since Russia can also use European LNG terminals for its own exports. The efforts have also proved counterproductive to the U.S. objectives and the European Union’s bid to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 in creating devalued, or “stranded” gas assets that will eventually provide no economic return in Europe amid falling rates of consumption.
In fact, energy analysts point to the European Commission’s non-confrontational, bureaucratic approach and competition rules as more effective ways to curb Moscow’s oil and gas dominance in Europe, since they played a significant role in helping stop Russia’s South Stream pipeline and forcing Russian oil giant Gazprom to offer market rates to still-dependent European countries.
The industry’s push to expand fracking, Oil Change’s Rees tells Truthout, “is about an extremely cynical ploy [on the part of Big Oil] to essentially save themselves from the graveyard and save themselves from a fossil fuel era which is rapidly ending, and I think it’s really important that neither the U.S. and Europe gets caught in that trap.”
Energy analysts are cautiously optimistic that Europe won’t get caught in Big Oil’s trap, forecasting that the conflict could serve as a major catalyst for Europe’s decarbonization efforts by forcing governments to ramp up investments in renewable energy sources. This is especially likely, analysts argue, after gas prices nearly tripled last year following the end of pandemic lockdowns. With back-to-back energy crises brought on or exacerbated by market volatility, the writing may be on the wall for oil and gas.
In fact, it’s already happening. Under pressure from other Western nations to become less dependent on Russian gas, Germany is accelerating its transition to renewable energy, now aiming to fulfil all its electricity needs with renewable sources by 2035, compared to its previous target to do so “well before 2040,” according to a government draft paper obtained by Reuters on Monday.
Yet, Global Witness’s Milin points out that even as Germany suspended certification of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline after Moscow recognized two separatist-held regions in eastern Ukraine, the project’s sister pipeline, Nord Stream I, continues to carry Russian gas to Germany. Moreover, Germany’s suspension of Nord Stream 2 may ultimately end up being temporary, as the pipeline is already fully constructed. That’s a contradiction in terms for a country with aspirations to be seen as an international climate leader, she says.
“We are in a momentous climate emergency, and we shouldn’t forget that, even as all eyes are on Ukraine and the horrors and tragedies that we see unfolding there,” Milin says.