Conflicts forcing environmental, security trade-offs

The time has come to consider major trade-offs.

The Ukraine crisis is turning out to have far wider implications than whether that country leans more toward to Russia or the European Union.

In seeking to signal Russian President Vladimir Putin they disapprove of his takeover of Crimea and his efforts to undermine the Ukrainian government, Europe, the United States, and Canada have run into trouble.

Western Europe depends heavily on natural gas from Russia. It has learned to go easy on Russia or run the risk of a major energy problem, if Putin cuts off the flow.

Russia is clearly willing to use natural gas exports as an instrument of its foreign policy. If Europe doesn’t accept Russian actions, it may be left in the cold.

The situation is much like 1973, when Arab countries in the Middle East placed an embargo on oil shipments to the United States and some European countries, because of their support for Israel.

The effect was immediate and sharp. There were long lines at gas stations. And the price of oil shot up.

The embargo ended, because the exporting countries needed the revenues earned from petroleum sales, and the United States and other countries convinced Israel to pull back in Sinai. They also launched energy policies designed to make them less dependent on Middle East imports.

Now, the Ukraine crisis is causing a similar reshuffling of the energy deck.

Putin has seen Western Europe begin to reduce reliance on Russian supplies. European countries are considering how to develop more aggressively their own resources, including renewable resources, and to create more energy links with the United States.

Last week, Germany, which is closing all of its nuclear power plants, said it would now push fracking – pushing deep gas to the surface by water pressure – to increase domestic natural gas supplies. That’s one trade-off.

Having understood the Ukraine crisis will mean the loss of Russia’s captive European market, Putin did his own trade-off and quickly accepted a long-term agreement to supply China, after a decade of unsuccessful negotiations. There’s little doubt he retreated on pricing to get the deal done.

These developments create opportunities for the United States. It can play a far more important role in European economies, strengthen its political ties with Europe, and develop significant new export markets.

Here’s where the American trade-off comes in.

Strong and legitimate environmental concerns surround the increasing use of natural gas supplies developed by fracking or “dirty” oil from Canadian oil sands transported by the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

There are good environmental arguments for imposing much tougher standards on fracking and preventing the pipeline development.

If that’s done, environmental concerns would get higher priority than economic and political needs and opportunities. U.S. foreign policy options would essentially be limited by environmental issues.

The United States could more fully introduce an “all of the above” energy policy of pushing hard on expanding wind and solar sales to replace Russian natural gas imports and Chinese-made renewables in Europe.

At the same time, as part of a balanced American political compromise, Washington could allow the Keystone deal, capable of making the United States a major oil exporter, and pleasing Canada, one of our most valued allies.

This policy would place environmental concerns in a framework requiring them to be judged not only in terms of the positive qualities they promote but also in light of the political and economic situation.

The political benefit could mean Europe would be better able to adopt the same kind of independent policies toward Russia and China as the United States favors.

Tightening U.S. economic and political links with its northern neighbor is also important. At the recent G-7 meeting of major industrial powers, only energy-independent Canada stood with the U.S. in urging a tough position in dealing with Russia.

While the Cold War is dead and should remain dead, the world is beginning to understand we are now in what might be called the Commerce War, in which China and Russia seek economic domination and, through it, political influence at the expense of the United States and Europe.

By the end of this decade, China, now with the help of Russian natural gas, will have the world’s largest economy, displacing the United States.

The Ukraine crisis and the growing economic power of China should send Americans, Europeans, and Canadians a clear message about the challenge to their national security and their place in the world.

Of course, sound environmental policy should have high priority, but it should be considered in a wider context of America’s national interest.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and publisher.