The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) made a recent foray into unintentional self-parody when it began describing natural gas as “molecules of U.S. freedom.” While amusement and ridicule are perfectly reasonable reactions to this spectacle, all of us who care about freedom (for people, not molecules) and a livable future need to think about the terrifying potential uses of this language.
The new term came in a press release boasting that the Trump administration was green-lighting the expansion of a natural gas export terminal in Texas so it could sell more fracked gas overseas.
Just two days later, Oil Change International published a report demonstrating that continuing development of known gas reserves alone will make it impossible to keep the global temperature increase above pre-industrial levels to within 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is the scientifically determined upper limit to avoid planetary catastrophe. The report also showed that investments in any new natural gas infrastructure — such as pipelines and export terminals — locks in planet-warming emissions for years, since these facilities are expensive and designed to last for a long time.
In other words, the U.S. government is using outlandish self-congratulatory language to brag about approving natural gas infrastructure that will threaten the future of humanity if it’s allowed to operate over the entirety of its expected lifetime. It’s also a colossal waste of resources, the report shows, because a combination of renewable energy, battery storage, and demand-responsive electric grid management is cost-competitive with natural gas and addresses any concerns about grid reliability.
Why, then, does the government persist in expanding natural gas and other fossil fuel extraction, use and export? Because of crony capitalism, pure and simple.
The Trump administration is actively aiding the fossil fuel industry through an extremely broad deregulatory agenda — including everything from rolling back auto fuel efficiency standards (to protect a market for the industry’s products) to literally taking cues at the behest of wealthy oligarchs (like coal baron Robert Murray, who sent the Energy Department a wish list it has followed to a T).
The recent DOE press release fits this pattern. Still, its Orwellian characterization of fossil fuel capitalism as a “freedom” agenda marks a fresh debasement amid escalating persecutions of the environmental movement.
In recent years, we’ve seen epic Indigenous-led protests against the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines (with the latter successfully put on indefinite hold) and other social movement victories that have stymied fossil fuel infrastructure development. In response, several states have introduced or passed legislation to criminalize peaceful protests against fossil fuels. Fossil fuel companies and the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council have actively backed this wave of repressive legislation.
Meanwhile, movements against extraction have faced surveillance and infiltration by law enforcement and shadowy private security companies as the lines between law enforcement and fossil fuel company security guards increasingly blurs.
Now, the repression of anti-extraction protest is going nationwide. Proposed guidelines for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the Department of Transportation seek to make “disruption” of pipeline construction — which could easily apply to peaceful blockades of construction sites — a federal crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The good news from all this is that clearly the protests are working. But the administration’s response is chilling, and shows the lengths to which the government will go to use state power to protect the privileges of capital. In this context, conflating natural gas and other fossil fuels with “U.S. freedom” is very dangerous. Inflammatory words such as these can be deployed as an ideological weapon to stigmatize anti-extraction protesters as “anti-American” or even “terrorists.”
It doesn’t stop at the borders of the United States, either.
The DOE’s press release declares that increasing exports from the Texas terminal is “critical to spreading freedom gas throughout the world by giving America’s allies a diverse and affordable source of clean energy.” It also adds that, “increased supplies of U.S. natural gas on the world market are critical to advancing … the energy security of our allies around the globe.”
The ideology underlying the language of “freedom gas” is consistent with the official U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS). One of the imperatives under the “Promote American Prosperity” pillar of the strategy is to “Embrace Energy Dominance,” defined as “America’s central position in the global energy system as a leading producer, consumer, and innovator.”
In case there’s any doubt as to what kind of energy the NSS is talking about, the document declares “abundant energy resources” (including “coal, natural gas, petroleum”) to be the foundation of economic growth. It’s clear that the authors of the NSS view the “central position” of the U.S. as the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas to be inextricably linked to U.S. national security interests.
It gets worse. The NSS asserts that, “U.S. leadership is indispensable to countering an anti-growth energy agenda that is detrimental to U.S. economic and energy security interests.” The placement of this language in the NSS sends the message that the U.S. regards any threat to its position as a leading fossil fuel producer and exporter as constituting an “anti-growth energy agenda” that runs counter to its national security.
Given the disproportionate military power of the United States — and its reputation for fighting wars over oil — the rest of the menacing message can remain unspoken. While the NSS does not specify any scenarios, it’s entirely consistent with the logic of the doctrine it articulates for the U.S. to use coercive measures, including even military intervention, against social movements or governments in other countries who challenge U.S. oil and gas interests.
Viewed in this context, “freedom gas” belongs to the same family of rhetoric as “freedom fries” — invoking “freedom” to justify an imperial agenda that serves the interests of capital.
Our job must be to make sure dangerous propaganda terms such as this never take hold.