Green groups: Russia-fueled push for natural gas exports will fade

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Green groups say they’re confident the push to expand U.S. natural gas exports will fade as attention moves away from Russia’s clash with the West over Ukraine.

The fight has brought new attention to Russia’s use of its natural gas reserves as political leverage over Europe, and has fueled GOP arguments that the U.S. should step up its efforts to export its own natural gas as an answer to Moscow.

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But environmental groups insist the push won’t give new life to longstanding arguments from oil companies that want to see an expansion of exports and of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

“This will have a limited life,” predicted Gabe Wisniewski, who leads Greenpeace’s energy campaign.

“This is a momentary episode of more rhetoric than fact,” said Mike Tidwell, president of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

The GOP position appears to have gained traction, with the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal all endorsing increased exports in the context of reducing Russia’s influence and power in Europe.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has also said increasing natural gas exports could be a smart way of dealing with Russia, and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is open to the idea, telling reporters March 11 “I think it is something that is worthwhile to consider.”

Environmental groups have long opposed an expansion of liquefied natural gas exports, arguing it would have a devastating impact on the environment because of increased fracking.

They say people are simply exploiting the Ukrainian crisis to score points on what is really an unrelated issue.

“It’s the most recent convenient opportunity for the oil and gas industry and their front groups to intensify fracking,” said Wisniewski. “They had a different argument three months ago for why fracking is the solution to America’s energy issues, and a year ago they had a different reason.”

Green groups largely see the Crimea situation as temporary, and they think that support for ramping up LNG exports will die down soon. But they’re taking the challenge seriously nonetheless.

Republicans have pushed the Obama administration in recent weeks to approve more applications to build export terminals to bring liquefied natural gas to U.S. allies. A bill proposed this month by Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is challenging Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) for his Senate seat, would force the administration to approve all pending applications for export terminals.

The GOP sees liquefied natural gas exports as a way to punish Russia while removing the near monopoly it has on exporting natural gas to many countries Eastern Europe, including Ukraine.

“The U.S. has a responsibility to stand up for freedom and democracy around the globe, and we have a responsibility to stand with the people of Ukraine in the face of Russia’s invasion,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement. “One immediate step the president can and should take is to dramatically expedite the approval of U.S. exports of natural gas.”

The White House, while not endorsing the idea, has promised to remain open to additional export facilities. But it is aware of the potential for an energy problem in Eastern Europe.

White House advisor John Podesta told reporters Wednesday, “we’re taking immediate steps to assist Ukraine, both in the short term and the mid-term, and to reassure energy security in conjunction with the European partners. We don’t anticipate any gas interruption.”

The Department of Energy has given preliminary approval to licenses to export LNG to six countries. But those facilities won’t be producing until late 2015 at the earliest, Podesta said.

Podesta said the environmental groups who are concerned completely oppose fossil fuels and want to immediately stop all fossil fuel use. “That’s a pretty impractical way of moving towards a clean energy future,” he said.

Environmental groups argue increasing exports of U.S. natural gas would provide no immediate help to Ukraine, and that it would exacerbate climate change.

“The temporary and understandable desire to help with the Ukraine situation doesn’t at all change the reality — economic and environmental — in terms of the negative impact on the United States of exporting LNG,” said Tidwell.

Tidwell, along with energy experts, said that the proposed export terminals would not be operational for years. Furthermore, the gas is likely to go to Asia, where prices are highest, and not Eastern Europe.

His group joined the Sierra Club and 350.org on Tuesday in sending a letter to President Obama urging him to reject liquefied natural gas export applications, including one for a proposed terminal Cove Point in Lusby, Md.

“It is understandable that people in the United States would want to help an emerging democracy somewhere else in the world in any way that we can,” Tidwell said. “Unfortunately, these LNG exports will not provide any assistance to Europe or the Ukraine.”

“The proposed Cove Point LNG terminal would certainly make gas companies richer, but it would make our own country more poor,” Michael Brune, executive director of Sierra Club, told reporters Tuesday. “Building a new LNG terminal doesn’t strengthen our nation, and it further disrupts our climate.”

“There’s no question that this is a concern,” said Ross Hammond, spokesman for Friends of the Earth, who expressed some doubt the issue would die down anytime soon.

He predicted it will remain a theme throughout the Crimea crisis.