Climate activists living under the constant blare of air raid sirens in Ukraine say they don’t want the United States’ fracked gas exports, and don’t want frontline communities along the U.S. Gulf Coast living with the impacts of so-called liquefied natural gas (LNG) infrastructure to become sacrifice zones in their name. Instead, they say, they want a dramatic, wartime mobilization for a transition to clean energy.
Impacted climate and environmental justice activists in both countries are decrying the recent energy security deal President Joe Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen struck Friday in Brussels, Belgium. The world leaders announced a new task force that would work to ramp up LNG shipments to Europe to facilitate the continent weaning itself off Russian oil and gas while simultaneously working to reduce demand and expand renewable energy to meet the U.S. and European Union’s shared climate goals.
Despite the promised increase in renewable energy, Ukrainian and U.S. Gulf Coast activists, who are living with the impacts of Russia’s invasion and the U.S. oil and gas export zone’s industrial pollution, called a U.S. fracked gas surge of 50 billion cubic meters to Europe through at least 2030 a disastrous answer to the need for independence from Russian fossil fuels amid the escalating climate emergency.
Oleg Savitsky, a climate and energy policy expert at the Ukrainian Climate Network and board member of the environmental protection organization Ecoaction, tells Truthout the recent deal is a win for the LNG lobby, which has exploited the crisis to push for increased fracking while taking advantage of market shocks and price increases to keep profits and share values high.
According to a recent Food & Water Watch analysis, the value of shares currently held by the CEOs of eight major fossil fuel companies, including Exxon, Chevron, Enbridge, Kinder Morgan and Cheniere, has increased by nearly $100 million since the beginning of the year. Another analysis by Oil Change International, Greenpeace USA and Global Witness finds high wartime prices will net the U.S. oil and gas industry a windfall of $37 to $126 billion in 2022 alone.
“You cannot address this crisis with new infrastructure,” Savitsky told Truthout from Lviv, Ukraine. “New infrastructure needs, five, six years to build, and it will be just another stranded asset — as useless as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is now. It will be just billions of wasted money at the time when no single infrastructure project with fossil fuel use can move forward.”
Savitsky moved with his family to Lviv from Kyiv after the first two weeks of the invasion as Russian forces attempted to penetrate the city and fighting broke out within the Ukrainian capital. The security situation in Lviv, Savitsky says, is rapidly deteriorating as Russia increasingly targets the city with missile strikes and air attacks. At least five people were injured over the weekend after two Russian missiles struck the city, one hitting a fuel storage facility and the other targeting the city’s radio repair plant.
Despite the recent strikes, Savitsky says he’s not planning to pick up and move again. “I’m not afraid of air strikes,” he says, telling Truthout cities and town in western Ukraine will fight fiercely against any Russian incursion, and that an advance into Lviv would be “suicide” for Russian troops.
Savitsky called on U.S. and EU leaders to instead pursue a Marshall Plan-style proposal to ramp up renewable and energy efficiency technologies to enable a complete transition away from fossil fuels. He explained that LNG terminals and other infrastructure in southern Europe will inevitably boost autocrats propped up by the fossil fuel industry, whether it’s Russian President Vladimir Putin (who could potentially gain access to the infrastructure if sanctions end) or other petrostate autocrats like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Moreover, he says, for the recent energy deal to have even a shred of credibility, U.S. and EU leaders need to take care of some “unfinished business,” namely the extradition of the Kremlin-connected Ukrainian oil and gas oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who, acting through his firm RosUkrEnergo, a joint venture with Russia’s state oil company Gazprom, fixed Ukrainian gas markets to Moscow’s advantage and funneled money into the campaigns of pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine. The U.S. Department of Justice has sought Firtash’s extradition from Austria on bribery and racketeering charges since 2014.
Firtash became embroiled in Trump’s first impeachment over withholding of military aid to Ukraine after Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani offered to help Firtash with his extradition case if Firtash hired two attorneys close to Trump to dig up dirt on Joe Biden. In addition to calling for U.S. and EU leaders to ensure Firtash is held accountable for his crimes, Savitsky also urged nationalization of RosUkrEnergo’s gas distribution assets in Ukraine.
Before the invasion, Savitsky’s organization, Ecoaction, was working to reshape Ukraine’s energy markets to facilitate a rapid transition to renewables and phase out the country’s poorly performing coal-fired power plants, which he says haven’t undergone reconstruction or adopted any additional pollution controls since the Soviet era.
The war and Ukraine’s successful disconnection of its power grid from Russia and Belarus, and subsequent synchronization with EU’s energy grid on March 16, Savitsky says, has likely dealt a “final blow” to the country’s coal industry. Additional grid capacity from the EU has not only rendered coal unnecessary, he says; it makes it possible for Ukraine to advance its decarbonization goals.
In fact, Savitsky was part of the energy transition coalition that first raised the question of connecting to the EU grid with the European Commission. He says they sent the letters to the European Commission and to the office of the Delegation of the European Union in Kyiv. “We are very grateful to European partners that this process was really put forward very rapidly after our request,” he tells Truthout.
Still, he says, Ukraine needs more from its EU and U.S. partners on energy and climate. “We have been talking about a Green New Deal for several years already. It’s time to really walk the talk and to build out the new industrial era with green technologies,” he says.
Julian Popov, a fellow at the European Climate Foundation and former Bulgarian minister of environment, concurs with Savitsky’s analysis of the problems with a U.S. fracked gas surge to Europe. He told Truthout that it’s unclear, under the U.S.-EU energy deal, where Europe is going to get the remainder of the fuel supplies it needs to replace the 150 billion cubic meters of gas shipments it received from Russia last year. The amount is about 10 times the 15 billion cubic meters Biden and von der Leyen immediately requested Friday.
The global LNG market is already operating at close to its limits. In the U.S., for example, the Golden Pass LNG facility in southeast Texas is the only export terminal under full construction but won’t be complete until 2024. It joins 19 new or expanding LNG terminal facilities that have been proposed along the Gulf Coast, according to the Environmental Integrity Project’s Oil and Gas Watch tracker.
In the time it takes to build additional export and import infrastructure in the U.S. and southern Europe, there will be cheaper and more achievable advances in renewable technology, Popov says, devaluing, or “stranding,” the LNG assets that were built. Moreover, finding the supplies to feed European demand will be difficult, especially as U.S. LNG regularly fetches higher prices in Asia.
Popov emphasized that clean energy technology must be paired with energy efficiency solutions, as has been the trend in countries like Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom over the past decade. A joint analysis by Bellona, Ember, E3G and the Regulatory Assistance Project finds clean energy paired with energy efficiency can replace two-thirds of Russian gas imports to Europe by 2025, and that constructing new LNG import or export infrastructure is unnecessary to help Europe achieve energy independence from Russia.
The U.S.-EU energy security deal promises to ramp up development and investments in clean energy, including expediting the planning and approval of new renewable energy projects as well as strategic energy cooperation for the development of offshore wind. It also includes commitments to deploy demand-response devices like smart thermostats and heat pumps.
But Popov says these nods to the need for climate action are unserious, noting that expanding exports will lock the U.S. and EU into burning fracked gas for decades, imperiling the countries’ shared goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050. He called the new Task Force on Energy Security simply “a promise to make a promise” and described President’s Biden’s position on gas exports as no different than former President Donald Trump’s.
Yet, even as the Biden administration seeks to expand gas exports, it is weighing whether to do more on the clean energy front: The Intercept reported last week that the administration has drafted an executive order to invoke the Defense Production Act to bolster the manufacturing of electric vehicles and alleviate shortages of minerals needed to store clean energy in light of oil and gas market shocks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Such a move should have been made months ago, says frontline climate activist John Beard, who spent decades working at a local Exxon plant in Port Arthur, Texas, and later founded the Port Arthur Community Action Network. The organization fights for environmental justice for communities living along the Texas Gulf Coast gas export corridor, home to nearly half of the nation’s existing oil and gas refining capacity.
“When Biden came onboard, he said he was going to be the ‘climate president.’ Well, we’ve seen very little of that. He’s gotten mired in bureaucratic red tape and doublespeak, and he’s been thwarted by [corporate centrist Sen.] Joe Manchin and others. That doesn’t look good. It doesn’t bode very well. So he’s going to have to put [the draft executive order] in place,” Beard tells Truthout.
Beard has long been fighting the expansion of fracked gas infrastructure in Port Arthur, where the Golden Pass LNG facility is currently under construction and where Black residents, who are more likely to live closer to the city’s petrochemical facilities, live with rates of cancer higher than the state average. Beard is now fighting plans for another Sempra Energy LNG facility that, together with Golden Pass, would transform the city into one of the nation’s largest LNG export hubs.
He tells Truthout his community is already a “sacrifice zone” to the U.S. oil and gas industry, and, whether or not the president takes executive action on clean energy in the U.S., his recent EU energy deal will drastically expand that zone to other vulnerable communities of color along the Gulf Coast already living the path of climate-fueled hurricanes. “This is going to be a free for all for the oil and gas industry,” he says.
He also worries the deal will deliver a blow to his community’s fight against the Sempra Energy LNG facility — something he was already clued into while listening to comments last week from U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and others at S&P Global’s CERAWeek energy conference in Houston, Texas. Granholm told oil and gas executives that permitting reforms are “definitely on the agenda” for the Biden administration, generating a round of applause from oil and gas executives.
“That’s not good news for us. It means that [regulators are] going to accelerate the pace [at which they approve oil and gas infrastructure], which means they’re going to ignore a lot of the real world concerns that these communities have,” Beard tells Truthout.
Not only will communities like his bear the brunt of increased infrastructure buildout, LNG expansion in Texas is likely to further drive up the demand for fracking in the state’s Permian Basin “climate bomb,” where fracked gas extraction was already expected to increase 50 percent over the next decade — the exact opposite of the 40 percent decline climate scientists say is needed to stay under the Paris Agreement limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Increased fracking in the Permian Basin also means runaway emissions of powerful climate-warming methane gas from rampant flaring and venting at Permian gas wells.
Under the EU energy deal, the Biden administration has promised not only to reduce methane leaks but also the overall greenhouse gas impacts of new LNG infrastructure and associated pipelines by powering those operations with clean energy.
However, Beard says these promises are just lip service. “There really is no such thing as non-polluting with this equipment and infrastructure,” he says. “I think Biden is trying to sell a pig in a poke. He’s basically taken on the mantra of the industry.”