Equilibrium & Sustainability

Ukraine crisis an opportunity to shift from fossil fuels, lawmaker says

Aaron Schwartz

A Democratic lawmaker is calling for a huge increase in clean energy investment and reduction in domestic fossil fuel consumption amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

“The way we are not dependent on foreign oil is not to use it,” Rep. Sean Casten (Ill.) told The Hill.

The congressman represents an emerging Democratic position that ties Russia’s aggression to America’s dependence on fossil fuels, foreign and otherwise, and positions green energy as key to American energy security.

On Tuesday, he drew a direct link between the conflict in Ukraine and the Build Back Better Act, President’s Biden’s $1.75 trillion social spending proposal, about a third of which is intended for climate and green energy.

“If we make our vehicles more efficient, if we make our homes more efficient — that reduces the need for oil and gas regardless of the source.”

Casten spoke in response to a push from Republicans such as Sen. Steve Daines (Mont.) for renewed domestic drilling and the resurrection of pipelines such as the Keystone XL, which President Biden rejected a permit for in January of last year.

“And a bit of a concern this week has seeing some of my colleagues, and not just Republicans, who are trying to create this narrative that if you want to reduce dependence on Russian oil, you need to build the Keystone Pipeline or help some, you know, mom-and-pop Oklahoma fracker get a permit,” Casten added.

These projects would take years to put in place — and would also be swallowed up by a global oil market, doing little for true U.S. energy independence, Casten argued.

“We’re trying to figure out in the next 20 days, what can we do to reduce the supply of Russian cash,” he said.

“And to say that the way we’re going to do that is by building an LNG terminal or, you know, re-permit Keystone — you are either a liar or a moron. You can’t just build these things in 5 minutes.”

Casten argued that a greater push for renewable energy would also help untether America’s energy markets from rising prices in Europe and Asia — to which they have been tied since 2015, when then-President Obama lifted the 40-year old Crude Oil Export Ban, allowing American gas producers to ship methane gas overseas.

“It used to be that when there was volatility in European natural gas markets, they didn’t affect the U.S. Now they do,” Casten said. 

The U.S. directly and indirectly subsidizes its oil sector far beyond anything it spends on renewable energy — which would arguably still be true even if Build Back Better passes. A 2021 study from the International Monetary Fund found that the United States taxpayers spend about $650 billion per year — 12 times Build Back Better’s $555 climate package — on either directly funding fossil fuels or paying for the health care and environmental costs their burning inflicts on surrounding communities.

“Why can’t people get a nuclear plant funded? Well, part of it is because you’ve got to set so much money aside to deal with waste disposal, and yet if you build a coal plant you are getting a 100-percent subsidy from Medicaid,” which picks up the public health costs, Casten said. 

Those implicit subsidies “have a way of really distorting capital markets,” he said. “How much of our income tax goes to defending ship movements in the Suez Canal? We have taken conscious decisions to subsidize resource extraction in this country at levels that are massively higher than the degree to which we occasionally and sporadically subsidize energy extraction.”

Even if markets are driving the transition from a high-carbon economy into a carbon neutral one — as Build Back Better holdout Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has suggested — the process will be painful if governments don’t intervene, Casten said.

“The market doesn’t give a damn about coal workers,” he said. “If you’re a West Virginia coal worker, you have direct experience with the market prioritizing the mechanization of mining in order to lower the production cost of coal, to lower the cost of energy — and doing nothing for the line workers who are displaced by that transition.”

Many Democrats fail to understand that so far, the dramatic growth in green jobs has been highly concentrated in sectors and regions far from the comparatively fewer “brown” fossil fuel jobs being lost, Casten said. 

“The green jobs we’re creating — and we are creating a lot — are mostly construction jobs. The jobs we’re losing are primarily operating jobs. And if you have the know-how to, you know, keep a cyclone boiler running and maintaining really high capacity factor and staying in compliance with your air permits — that’s a really complicated set of skills, and it has nothing to do with manufacturing solar panels.”

The American government and economy have generally left people to fend for themselves during such transitions — making Biden’s intent to focus on a “just transition” both new and vitally important, Casten said.

“When the Okies moved to California because farms were being mechanized — it wasn’t because of intentional federal policy, it was a massive internal refugee crisis.”

“I’d like to see the president be forceful and insistent on bringing [Build Back Better] forward, while at the same time making it clear that this is not enough. ‘Don’t be scared by this challenge: I have nothing to offer you but blood, sweat, toil and tears, but we’re going to get this done.”

“Because if we sit in this moment at that time in history and say the best thing we can do is nothing, and kick the can down the road — then you do not deserve to be in a position of leadership. There are 537 Americans who have the privilege to hold federally elected office. If you are not among the best of the best to be in that job — find another job that is more suited to your skills,” he added.

“But this moment demands action.”

Tags Barack Obama Biden agenda Build Back Better Build Back Better Act Build Back Better agenda clean energy Fossil fuels Joe Biden Joe Manchin Sean Casten Steve Daines Ukraine Ukraine invasion
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