Will sending natural gas to Europe thwart Putin?

March 25, 2014

On Saturday morning people gathered to discuss our neighborhood’s parking issues.

I don’t want to give the impression my weekends are always filled with such exciting and momentous occasions, but one thing became clear: Even minor, seemingly simple problems defy easy solutions. There are always points and ramifications to consider.

Fortunately, complexity disappears when it comes to international relations and crises. Here, all one needs is a little backbone and “conservative common sense” and problems scatter like leaves before a storm.

At least that’s the impression I got after reading a News Journal column by Kevin Wade, a Delaware Republican who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2012. Titled “It’s time to start playing chess with Russia,” it ran March 20 and can be found online. It’s quick, snappy and well worth reading.

The fault for this crisis, of course, lies with Obama, according to Wade. He says, “Obama’s weakness and indecision invite Russian adventure.”

First, Russia has major interests in Crimea, including a naval base. Crimea has many Russian-speaking citizens who are closer to Russia than to the Ukraine. While the referendum was bogus, most observers think it reflects the region’s will. The U.S. has no major interests in Crimea.

Second, consider the comments of John Matlock, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union under Republican President George W. Bush. He says there was nothing Obama could have done to prevent the crisis, and in Time magazine he writes, “Ukraine is almost certainly better off without Crimea than with it.”

(The online article is worth checking out for his approach to dealing with the situation.)

But the most striking part of Wade’s column was his solution: Send convoys of U.S. natural gas across the Atlantic to rid Europe of its dependence on Russian energy.

Wade says, “We’ll sell natural gas at a good old-fashioned profit and at a price lower than Russia.”

But the “U.S.” doesn’t sell natural gas. Private companies do, and they’re free to sell wherever they can reap the highest profit. Right now, that’s in Asia. Is Wade suggesting the federal government direct natural gas sales to Europe? Aren’t Republicans against the federal government meddling with private enterprise? (Also, it would be hard to sell at a lower price than Russia. U.S. companies transport by ship, Russia by pipeline.)

Wade says, “Let’s create tens of thousands of high-wage jobs here building three or four large ship-loading facilities.”

Private companies are free to build such facilities, and some projects are already planned, including one at Cove Point, Md., which a Virginia power company wants to turn into a global energy hub, according to National Geographic.

Not surprisingly, some people are against the proposal, including neighbors and environmental groups concerned about the Chesapeake Bay. It sounds a little like the situation in Millsboro, where a plan to turn a former pickle plant into a chicken operation has generated heated opposition.

That same National Geographic article also said that while studies show that increased natural gas exports would expand the economy they would also “lead to higher domestic natural gas prices.”

This would mean not only higher heating bills for residential customers but increased costs for manufacturers. That’s something else to consider for people determined to export natural gas to Europe.

Wade continues. “Let’s reawaken our shipyards to build the tankers to convoy the American gas to the European ports.”

But the shipyards are already booming. According to NPR, three years ago virtually no oil tankers were being built in the United States.

Now, at least 15 are on order, “along with hundreds of tugs and barges.”

Here’s the problem. It will take “months, if not years, to build” those vessels. Worse, shipyards can’t keep up with the current demand.

Short of a World War II-style mobilization of the American economy, we won’t be able to build the ships and loading facilities to send natural gas to Europe anytime soon. Assuming we wanted to. Which we might not.

And even if we did, it’s quite possible the situation would have changed by then. Sanctions and diplomacy might work.

Despite the Republicans’ extolling of Putin as some kind of chess-playing genius, he’s got problems too. The Russian economy depends on energy sales. Long-term, they can’t afford to scare away customers. New energy sources - and the necessary infrastructure - are coming online, including those in the United States.

The U.S. triumphed over a Soviet Union that was much stronger than present-day Russia. We can do so again, largely because of the strength of our private enterprise system.

But as we deal with the crisis, it’s good to remember how difficult these problems are. They might even be tougher than neighborhood parking problems.

  • Accomplished writers appear in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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