Clean Energy Insights

Latest energy wake-up call: How long must we depend on autocratic petro-states?

7 minute read

As featured in the Hill

As Americans navigate through politically divisive times, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted a clear area of consensus across the aisle: We need to move past our addiction to foreign oil. The only divergence seems to be how. But the “how” is not rocket science. It’s time to say goodbye to fossil fuels once and for all. Hopefully, this latest threat to global energy supply will inspire us to act, and act swiftly.

The role of energy in our wars

Indigenous Environmental Network organizer Dallas Goldtooth tweeted “I know the reasons for the #UkraineCrisis are complicated. But it would be remiss of us to not mention how energy is a factor in this invasion. In some ways the conflict is being driven, literally and figuratively, with hands lathered in oil and gas.”

Given the latest shock to world energy markets due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world is once again waking up to the realities of dependence on foreign despots for energy. Of course, you don’t have to look back too far to recall similar episodes.

Many have argued the Iraq war was motivated in part to keep Iraqi oil flowing to international markets. Before that, the oil shocks of the 1970s spurred President Carter to call for reduced energy usage and to put solar panels on the White House. But once the gas flowed again and the pressure at the pump eased, President Regan took the solar panels off the roof and called for more business as usual, which decades later has come back to haunt us.

All the presidents since, Republican and Democrat alike, have called for ending our addiction to foreign oil, and while some have tinkered in the margins, none of their policies have ever moved the needle.

The U.S. military alone spends $81 billion a year protecting oil shipping lanes and keeping troops in oil-producing regions. This not-too-often spoken about subsidy for giant fossil fuel companies allows them to continue doing business in, supporting and legitimizing, what are often authoritarian ruled petro-states, not friendly to the U.S. and its allies, through taxpayer dollars and tragically, American lives.

From Russia with not so much love

Russia is the first on this list. As Harvard economist Jason Furman told the New York Times, “Russia is incredibly unimportant in the global economy except for oil and gas.”

“It’s basically a big gas station,” he added. So much so that oil and gas make up 60 percent of Russia’s exports, allowing Russia to clear $500 million a day, propping up its war chest.

As founder and director of Fossil Free Media Jamie Henn wrote in The Guardian, “Russia never could have become such an oil and gas superpower without the help of western oil companies like ExxonMobil and BP, which owns a 20 [percent] share of Rosneft, Russia’s state owned oil company,” helping them modernize their operations and expand production.

Now, the world finds itself in between a rock and a hard place: 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas comes from Russia, through a Russian-owned pipeline across Ukraine.

And while many of the world’s nations are now putting sanctions on Russia to try and halt the invasion into Ukraine, they’ve yet to put sanctions on oil and gas exports for fear of triggering an energy crisis in Europe and an economic crisis worldwide. Sanctions meant to thwart them from invading their neighbor and killing innocent people, won’t even be directed at their main export product and money maker — fossil fuels.

Even without sanctions, fear of energy production disruption from the invasion of Ukraine has sent energy prices soaring. President Biden in turn has asked fossil fuel companies not to price gouge. “American oil and gas companies should not — should not — exploit this moment to hike their prices to raise profits,” he said in a speech last week.

But as author and climate activist Bill McKibben points out, perhaps asking them politely not to exploit the situation isn’t enough. “President Biden is warning the oil companies not to price-gouge, but of course they will — we need to break their power. And one way to do that is to quickly build out clean energy technology, everywhere we can.”

Finally, some consensus across the aisle

While there doesn’t seem to be much that conservatives and liberals agree on these days, energy independence makes the cut.

Despite Fox News’ Tucker Carlson’s recurring defense of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he at least acknowledges the strategic threat we face, noting “the West is now dangerously dependent on Vladimir Putin for energy. Now, our leaders may act like this is not a big deal. It is definitely a big deal.”

Victor Davis Hanson, a fellow at the conservative think tank the Hoover Institution, believes that “if the United States is [energy independent] … then we don’t beg people in the Middle East or Russia to help us… and Vladimir Putin doesn’t have financial reserves that can subsidize as an invasion.”

It’s so painfully obvious that relying on petro-state autocrats like Putin for energy is unwise and dangerous, that pundits across the aisle all agree — we better get off foreign oil ASAP.

Where they differ is how to do that. Conservatives argue that we need to ramp up oil and gas drilling at home, build more pipelines and increase exports.

That approach takes too long, costs too much, is based on a dwindling supply — and will only exacerbate the climate emergency.

Instead, the path forward is obvious.

As McKibben puts it, “Where once we built tanks to defend democracy, now we need to build air source heat pumps and EV chargers, along with electric buses and bike lanes.”

What Europe, the U.S. and the rest of the world need to do is clear: Making the switch to clean, renewable energy will not only cut our reliance on petro-state autocrats like Putin but achieve a host of other societal goals as well. In the United States, reaching 100 percent clean energy, which 85 percent of Americans support, would allow us to create a net increase of 2 million new jobs, save $1 trillion a year on electricity bills, clean up our air and water, improve our health — and combat climate catastrophe. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just released a new report that concluded “If nations don’t act quickly to slash fossil fuel emissions and halt global warming, more and more people will suffer unavoidable loss or be forced to flee their homes, creating dislocation on a global scale.”

Thus, producing more fossil fuels at home to avoid propping up foreign despots is not a solution.

The choice is clear. The only way forward for a safer world is through clean renewable energy for all. We have the technology, the know-how and the money we need to make it happen. May this energy wake-up call be the last we need to mobilize a historic energy transition that creates a far more sustainable, equitable and peaceful world, for now and for the future.

Andreas Karelas is author of the book “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America” published by Beacon Press. He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas

Previously Featured on The Hill

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