Winston, what would you do concerning natural gas?

Where is Churchill when we need him? How many psychobabble articles and cable commentary about Putin and Russia could we have done without by just remembering good old Winnie’s marvelous, insightful quote in 1939? It’s as near perfection as we are going to get in trying to understand Mr. Putin and Russia. Both are “riddle[s] wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian [and Putin’s] national interest.” (The word Putin is my addition — I am sure Churchill would not have minded.) What does Putin want? Apparently not only full control of Crimea, but also instability in Eastern Ukraine.

Okay, now some of you readers are saying the same about the U.S. We seem to accept Russia’s takeover of Crimea…ah, Russia had it once anyway and it has a big naval base there. Sounds vaguely historically familiar. What about the other place, they say. What was its name? Guantanamo and Cuba! Oh, no?! Please let’s focus on Eastern Ukraine.

Forget consistency and remember Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Consistency [in foreign policy] is the hobgoblin of little minds” (Again, pardon the added-on term, foreign policy.)

Now how does oil come into all of this? None of us, not just President Obama, want to fight a war over the Ukraine, Eastern Ukraine or Crimea. If he were running again, Obama would probably borrow from Woodrow Wilson’s campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war,” at least big wars, particularly with corrupt nations some of which have a history of fascism..

Alright, let’s use tough energy sanctions — oil and natural gas. if the regulations concerning sanctions were tough, they might really hurt Russia’s economy and its ability to move out of the economic doldrums. Let’s hit them where it hurts! No, apparently, we will not, at least for now. Why? Well, Western Europe and our new ally, the Ukraine, depend on natural gas. Without it, both would be in for cold winters and probably a severe industrial recession. So what did our leaders do? They excluded natural gas from the list of recent sanctions. I suspect they, also, will allow Russia and the West to continue to trade in oil not involving new technology from the West.

Absence of natural gas in Europe and the Ukraine (and probably other Eastern Europe nations) is a plus for the U.S. We can make it up by selling natural gas. Isn’t what’s good for the U.S. bad for Russia and Mr. Putin?

Maybe, maybe not…or maybe the view that the U.S can be savior of Western Europe is a myth. Or maybe it’s just too complex for political leaders to grab hold of instantly.

Some verities to deal with:

1. Even with the current rush to permit the export of natural gas, before terminals get built and tankers are ready and environmental issues are disposed of, the first large volume of natural gas would not reach Ukraine or Western Europe until 2016 or later.

2. The U.S., despite the increase in shale development and natural gas production, still imports natural gas to meet domestic supplies — about 12.5% in total. Like big oil, exports of natural gas are to a large degree being sought to secure a higher prices overseas than in the U.S. Hurting Russia for U.S producers is a side show.

3. Russia, ostensibly, can produce natural gas and ship it by pipeline, rail or boat cheaper than we can. According to experts, the cost of U.S.-produced, transported and sold natural gas in Europe and the Ukraine is and will be much higher than Russian-produced and transported natural gas sold globally. Note in this context that Russia just cemented a $4 billion deal for Russia to sell oil to China. Will the Europeans and Ukrainians want higher-priced natural gas from the U.S.?

4. Oh, I almost forgot. Just last winter, U.S. residents in many states, particularly eastern states, nearly froze because of shortages of natural gas resulting from lack of adequate pipeline capacity and pipeline congestion. Consequently, the gas they secured came at very high prices. If ports can be built, pipeline amendments for the east coast cannot be far behind and probably should come first, if money is tight. Can we afford both, given uncertainties concerning price of natural gas and cost of drilling in tight areas? Sure. But the tradeoffs need to be carefully balanced by policymakers and the long term for investors must look bright.

It’s a puzzlement. Our policy seen by many nonpartisan observers as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery…” I will know sanctions are real when gas is included. What I won’t know is whether it will make a difference to Russia, given the fungibility of import-needy nations like China. Sanctions may bring both China and Russia something that communism has failed to do — build back a broken alliance. What I also don’t know is whether the growth of exports will significantly raise natural gas prices over time in the U.S. and lower the price differential with oil, and its derivative gasoline. If it does, producers and distributors may get rich, but opportunities for something I do care about — the development and widespread use of natural gas-based ethanol as a replacement fuel — may be impeded significantly. If this occurs, the environment, our economy and low- and moderate-income Americans may be worse off for it. Policymaking in today’s world is difficult and is something you often cannot fully learn in school.

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