Clean Energy Insights

US using Ukraine as cover to lock us into fossil fuels for years to come

6 minute read

As featured in the Hill

Last year, 90 percent of all the new electricity generating capacity built around the world was renewable energy. And that’s in spite of the fossil fuel industry receiving 70 percent of global energy subsidies.

To put it another way, despite all the advantages of the entrenched, monolithic fossil fuel industry, energy markets are choosing to build clean energy over dirty energy nine times out of 10.

“Solar and wind are now the cheapest bulk power sources in 91 [percent] of the world…The energy revolution has happened. Sorry if you missed it,” Amory Lovins, regarded as the “Einstein of Energy Efficiency,” told The Guardian.

Given this state of affairs, the following will make you scratch your head: The Biden administration recently announced a new partnership with the European Union to help them end their reliance on Russian natural gas — by supplanting it with American natural gas.

Rather than a Marshall-plan type effort to help Europe accelerate the clean energy transition and limit the impacts of the unfolding climate crisis, the Biden administration opted instead to use the Russian invasion of Ukraine to try and justify building new natural gas infrastructure that will lock us into fossil fuel use for years to come. 

A look under the hood

The White House announcement about the partnership talks a great game on clean energy and energy efficiency. But at the heart of it, the plan ramps up liquid natural gas (LNG) production, streamlines the approval processes for new natural gas infrastructure, and requires that EU nations keep their natural gas storage capacity 90 percent full.

The partnership announcement is very clear about what the gas production and consumption goals of the initiative are. It stipulates the U.S., with international partners, will ensure LNG volumes of “at least 15 [billion cubic meters] in 2022” and the EU will ensure “stable demand for additional U.S. LNG until at least 2030 of approximately 50 [billion cubic meters annually].”

No such clear metrics or timetables were spelled out on the clean energy side. The renewables and energy efficiency goals in the agreement sound more like a child’s vague promise to be nicer to their sibling in the future.

“Developing a strategy to accelerate workforce development to support the rapidly [sic] deployment of clean energy technologies, including an expansion of solar and wind,” the announcement states. The White House didn’t even take the time to correct this grammatical error, which may be an indicator of how much of an afterthought this statement was.

Don’t get me wrong, “developing a strategy” is certainly important. It makes for a wonderful talking point. What would be more convincing though would be a target number of gigawatts deployed as well as jobs created, and by when, like they spelled out so clearly for the LNG industry.

The announcement is basically a natural gas sandwich. Two slices of clean energy rhetoric bread around a walloping helping of handouts to the fossil fuel industry. I guess the nearly $375 million the oil and gas industry spends on lobbying the federal government annually is paying off.

Missing the mark 

As many have pointed out, while Americans are feeling the pinch at the gas pump, the suggested measures will take months and years to implement and will not affect current gas prices or diminish Russia’s ability to continue their invasion of Ukraine.

The New York Times reports that “the United States doesn’t have enough capacity to export more gas and Europe doesn’t have the capacity to import significantly more” and “that building enough terminals on both sides of the Atlantic… could take two to five years.”

The horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine has been going on for just over a month, and peace talks in Turkey are now underway. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is locking in a guaranteed demand for gas for the rest of the decade and the ensuing climate chaos for centuries to come — an absolute giveaway to the fossil fuel industry.

As Bloomberg reports, the “multibillion-dollar investments in new facilities to convert gas into a liquid so it can be shipped globally take years to pay off, and LNG exporters will want to keep using them long after the current crisis has abated.”

As a reminder, the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced in May 2021 there could be “no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects” if we wanted to keep planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

A better way to achieve energy independence

Of course, there are other ways to reduce the EU’s demand on Russian gas.

Climate author and activist Bill McKibben suggests Biden enact the Defense Production Act and start mass-producing electric heat pumps and insulation to export to Europe. 

This would not only be cheaper, faster and healthier for the planet, but it would be a shot in the arm to the clean energy manufacturing industry in the U.S., creating plenty of good-paying jobs along the way.

Speaking of creating good-paying jobs, now would also be a great time to finally pass the $500-billion of clean energy provisions of the budget reconciliation bill that was negotiated in the House and Senate last year. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has expressed interest in getting an energy bill passed soon, but well, we’ve heard that before. To get it over the finish line, this is going to need to be the top priority of Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. 

U.S. voters elected Biden and Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate based on the vision they laid out of building back our economy through investing in clean energy and climate justice solutions.

Climate advocate Justin Guay summed up our collective sentiment neatly stating, “The climate community is yearning for Team Biden to step up to this moment. We need historical leadership that tells the world the only true path to security is getting off gas. Wars and crisis are not when we put climate concerns to the side — it’s when we double down.”

Will Team Biden listen? 

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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