Fracking's Odd New Friend: Vladimir Putin

As Vladimir Putin pushes Russia's sphere of influence farther into eastern Europe, the White House, Capitol Hil, and K Street are all pushing plans to counter Russia's energy might with an energy surge of their own.

But as they craft their strategy, the policymakers are laying the groundwork for plans that green groups loathe. First and foremost: liquefying U.S. natural gas and exporting it to foreign markets.

For environmental groups battling a well-financed industry export push, the global security element adds a new challenge to an already difficult fight.

Environmentalists have long been battling industry claims that U.S. approval of expanded exports would be a domestic economic boost.

But now they're facing a new argument: that expanded and exported energy production (and fracking expertise) could boost the nation's foreign policy power — and do so without so much as firing a bullet.

"The crisis in Ukraine has brought ... use of U.S. shale energy in the service of national security goals into mainstream, bipartisan policy discussion," said Elizabeth Rosenberg, director of the Energy, Environment, and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Export backers on K Street and Capitol Hill have cited the Ukrainian tumult to press for faster federal approval of proposals stacked up at the Energy Department — and caught the attention of environmentalists.

Michael Brune, the Sierra Club's executive director, sought to parry the notion that gas exports are a way to bolster Europe's energy security.

"The idea that we should promote an increased dependence on another volatile fossil fuel as a solution to a long-standing problem reflects an inability to embrace the idea that we have to fight climate change effectively," he said on a call with reporters Tuesday.

The White House has been more circumspect than some Capitol Hill Republicans when it comes to gas exports as a way to aid Ukraine, or Europe overall, which relies on Russia for almost a third of its gas.

And sure, there are plenty of reasons to be: U.S. LNG shipments would not start flowing until next year at the soonest, and there are infrastructure constraints in Europe, among other barriers.

Anyway U.S. exporters, critics note, can fetch higher prices in Asia than Europe, although boosters say that more molecules on the global market overall translates into more supplies available to Europe.

But the White House nonetheless also appears open to viewing U.S. exports as a long-term way to help lessen European reliance on Russian gas, a lot of which is piped through Ukraine.

On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden and administration officials, on the VP's trip to Eastern Europe, made clear that energy policy is a big part of the response to Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

"In the coming weeks, we'll be meeting with our European partners to discuss ways to further diversify their source and supplies of energy. This will help improve energy security and it will ensure that no nation can use the supply of gas as a political weapon against any other nation," Biden, in a pointed reference to Russia, said alongside Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Tuesday.

A number of ideas are in play, dealing with energy efficiency and new supply sources, to help reduce reliance on Russian gas in Ukraine and Europe more broadly.

Among them: Helping European countries reproduce the fracking-enabled shale gas boom that has sent U.S. gas production to record levels.

"The U.S. has worked closely with the Poles, both in terms of technology with our companies, and in terms of their regulatory structure in Poland to exploit shale reserves," a senior administration official said.

It's part of what could growing European interest in fracking, which has been banned in several nations including France and Bulgaria.

"The Russian invasion of the Crimean Peninsula is giving Europe new enthusiasm for fracking," wrote Keith Johnson in Foreign Policy last week.

Government officials in the U.K., along with the Eastern European nations of Poland, Romania, and Ukraine have all expressed interest in shale gas development, despite varying degrees of pushback from public health and safety advocates.

On U.S. exports, the senior administration official also hinted that the White House is sympathetic to the notion that U.S. gas exports could eventually come into play.

"The United States is obviously reviewing and considering what we can and should do domestically to serve both our interests and the interests of our European partners," the official told reporters en route to Lithuania, while cautioning that exports are a "longer-term proposition."

But environmentalists see exports as another catalyst for more U.S. fracking, and say LNG exports worsen climate change due to emissions from gas production, transport, liquefaction, and shipping overseas.

The Energy Department has approved or conditionally approved six proposals to ship LNG to nations that lack formal free-trade deals with the U.S. (those proposals are more heavily vetted). About two dozen others are under review.

On Tuesday, the Sierra Club and 15 other groups released an open letter to President Obama saying they're "disturbed" by administration support for fracking and LNG exports.

"Emerging and credible analyses now show that exported U.S. fracked gas is as harmful to the atmosphere as the combustion of coal overseas — if not worse," states the letter from, Earthhustice, Environment and America and other groups.

The climate footprint of natural gas is heavily debated these days amid conflicting studies of the amount of the potent greenhouse gas methane released along the development chain, and competing views about how manageable the leakage is.

Brune said the letter — which focuses in particular on the planned Cove Point LNG project in Maryland — was not planned in response to the European crisis and the pro-export movement that it's feeding.

But the letter's unveiling on the same day that White House officials are talking up the ability of U.S. energy to help Europe shows how the geopolitical headwinds may now be blowing against the green movement.

Ironically, Putin himself has criticized fracking. But at a time when Putin rising in the ranks of America's top public enemies, his opposition is unlikely to do anything other than boost fracking's standing.

Clare Foran contributed to this article