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How U.S. Gas Gives Options to Europe but Increases Pollution Back Home

A liquified natural gas tanker. Photo credit: Joachim Kohler Bremen via Wikimedia Commons.

Two different conversations are being held in Europe and the United States, sparked by the same conflict. The Russo-Ukrainian War, heading into its second year, has caused immeasurable damage and suffering in Ukraine, and it has given rise to debates over a variety of hotly contested ethical issues. One such debate concerns Europe’s long-term reliance on and trust of Russia’s natural resources. Many people and organizations on both sides of the Atlantic are celebrating the possibility of finally ending the EU’s dependency on Russian oil and gas, but this shared enthusiasm belies the opposing goals that some of these actors have.  For example, environmental activists in the EU are vying for a transition to green energy. Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies in the United Sates are excited to access the European market once Russia is shut out, causing U.S. environmentalists to gear up for new battles over more gas and oil development. And overarching these conversations are global environmental concerns. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has issued a warning that there can be no new gas field projects or developments if the world is to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Otherwise, we risk surpassing safe limits of global warming. Ultimately, therefore, a more ethical and environmental decision must be made on both sides of the Atlantic.


Security First


Starting with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the EU began taking immediate steps to move away from Russian natural gas and oil. There were both moral and security reasons behind this decision. The EU not only did not want to fund Russia’s war against Ukraine by purchasing fossil fuels but also recognized that relying on these imports comprised a security risk, giving Russia too much power over Europe’s energy.1  Before the Russo-Ukrainian War, Russia provided the EU with 40 percent of its gas needs.2 Gas remains an important energy source in the EU, as about 30 percent of EU citizens use gas to heat their homes. Industries still use gas for 20 percent of their energy needs.3 Since the invasion, however, the EU has reduced its consumption of Russian gas down to 13 percent of its total gas usage.4 It has in large part been able to achieve this quick shift by relying on liquified natural gas (LNG) from the United States.

In myriad ways, from economic to ethical, the EU’s rapid shift to U.S. LNG is laudable. After all, it grants the EU more political freedom and resource security than it previously had.5 The United States is also a more reliable economic partner for the EU than other options, such as Azerbaijan or Algeria.6 And indeed, with the help of the United States and an unexpectedly warm winter, the EU has so far managed to keep its gas stocks relatively full and stable.7 However, now that the initial panic has subsided, EU policymakers and environmental activists are asking what comes next. While the EU had some reserves and short-term options to cope with this year, relying on U.S. LNG means greater long-term investment in building energy infrastructure that can receive and store LNG in Europe. To illustrate, consider shipping costs of LNG alone. To replace Russian gas exports to Europe, the U.S. would have to send approximately five shiploads of LNG a day to Europe. This would require constructing at least 160 new tankers, with a total price tag of $35.2 billion.8 This figure excludes the investments in new pipelines, regasification facilities, storage units, and ports that the EU would have to make, which the EU currently estimates will cost 26.4 billion euros.


Environment Second, If At All


In addition to monetary costs, EU environmentalists are sounding the alarm on the long-environmental impact of continuing to rely on fossil fuels. This, they argue, should be an inflection point, and they are calling for long-term investments into green energy instead.9 Their calls have been reflected by politicians and policymakers, and the IEA developed a 10-point plan for the EU. Key takeaways from this plan include an increase in the use of solar, wind, biopower, and nuclear energy; the decoupling of Europe’s energy grid from gas; and increasing energy efficiency in existing buildings.10 However, what is missing from this report is the total cost. The EU’s own REPowerEU energy transition plan estimates the cost of transitioning away from Russian gas in a more sustainable way by 2027 will be 210 billion euros.11 Even when considering that this investment will be gradually made over four years, the price tag is high for a quick and green transition compared to using and building an infrastructure for the long-term use of U.S. LNG.

Meanwhile, in the United States similar debates are being held but from a different position. Like in the EU, some are celebrating the increased demand for “freedom gas,” while environmentalists are concerned about what this temporary gas replacement means in the long-term.12 In the first half of 2022 alone, the volume of U.S. LNG exports rose by 12 percent, meaning the United States has now become the world’s biggest exporter of LNG.13 There are no plans to reverse this trend. To the contrary, the White House has stated that it plans to be sending Europe 50 billion cubic meters of gas annually by 2030, up from 22bcm in 2021.14

Even before the Russo-Ukrainian War, there were concerns over fracking and its effect on public health. Close to 17.6 million Americans live within half a mile of a fracking well, which produce more air toxins and worse water quality than traditional drilling.15 These pollutants disproportionately affect children and the elderly, causing congenital heart defects and premature death, among others negative externalities.16 Not only, of course, does fracking cause pollution domestically but continuing to release more and more carbon dioxide and ground-level ozone into the atmosphere will prove disastrous for the global environment and climate. This fear has led to over 200 U.S. groups to call on President Biden to invoke the Defense Production Act (DPA), which would allow massive investment in green energy development owing to wartime complications.17


Global Ethics, Most of All


While President Biden has publicly stated that the Russo-Ukrainian War should help us transition more quickly to green energy, increasing yearly LNG exports to Europe to up to 50bcm would certainly impede progress toward this goal.18 Moreover, on the ground, there have been few signs that LNG production is slowing. In the Permian basin alone, the largest deposit of natural gas in the United States, 904 drilling permits were issued in March 2022, compared to its usual 400–500 permits per month.19

Furthermore, these debates are all overshadowed by one larger ethical issue—the warming of our planet. While in the short-term, American LNG provided the EU with an ethical way to cut off Russian gas to support Ukraine, it is not a long-term ethical solution. Despite the innovations being made in the gas industry, the scientific community has warned repeatedly that we must keep remaining oil and gas in the ground to curb a potential climate disaster. Investing in a future where U.S. LNG becomes a staple of the EU’s energy infrastructure is therefore not only unethical but likely disastrous.

—Jacqueline Dufalla

Jacqueline is currently a PhD student at Central European University studying international relations with a focus on Russian foreign policy. 


The post How U.S. Gas Gives Options to Europe but Increases Pollution Back Home appeared first on Ethics & International Affairs.

Source: Ethics and International Affairs

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