After Ukraine, Will the U.S. Become an Energy Superpower?

The Russian chill and Mideast instability are boosting bipartisan support for domestic energy production.
President Obama walks past a New Mexico pumpjack in March 2012. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Not surprisingly, Republican leaders are already denouncing President Obama for being too mild in his response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's expansionist course in Ukraine and defiance of the West. What is much more likely to emerge as a bipartisan national strategy, especially in the long run, is a future that both Obama and Republicans have been touting: America's prospective role as an energy export superpower.

Thanks to breakthroughs in the controversial technique of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, the United States recently passed Russia as the world's largest producer of natural gas. Similarly the United States is expected to overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world's top oil producer by 2017, also because of new technologies, according to the International Energy Agency. The United States still possesses an astonishing total of about $128 trillion in "technically recoverable" oil and gas resources alone, amounting to eight times the national debt, says the Institute for Energy Research, a right-leaning nonprofit foundation in Washington.

Unlocking a somewhat larger portion of those resources of oil and gas in an environmentally cautious way, while also launching a massive new investment program in green and other technologies, would strike directly at the heart of Putin's apparent strategy for resurrecting Russia, some experts say. It would also mark a distinct contrast from the personal sanctions applied so far against his top cronies, which appear not to have dissuaded Putin at all.

The Russian leader has long believed that Russia's power lies in its oil and gas resources (he even wrote a paper on the subject as a graduate student in St. Petersburg), and he has not been shy about applying this as leverage against the former Soviet bloc countries on his periphery and against Western Europe, where the reluctance to sanction Moscow more severely is clearly linked to its dependence on Russia for more than a third of its oil and gas.

Strikingly, Putin has appeared to become so reliant on the economic potential of energy that he has done relatively little to open up and modernize Russia's economy, despite what should have been a globally competitive tech sector stemming from the nation's history as a defense and scientific giant.

In recent weeks, both conservative outlets such as The Wall Street Journal editorial page and prominent liberal platforms of opinion like The New York Times have suggested that the United States increase its natural-gas exports to help Western Europe and reduce Putin's leverage, especially over Ukraine, which before the standoff obtained about 90 percent of its natural gas from Russia. Some Republicans on Capitol Hill have also used the crisis to plug pet projects like the Keystone pipeline and press the Obama administration to license more natural-gas exports. Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, has called for lifting the ban on U.S. oil exports.

In truth, there is probably not much the U.S. can do in the immediate future to shift the economic dependence for Europe dramatically; the necessary plants and facilities will take years to build. The more realistic question is longer term: whether such a strategy should become a kind of energy analogue to Cold War containment policy, in part to counter what now looks like a long-term Putin strategy toward reasserting Russian influence in the former Soviet sphere.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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