Bill Johnson: Boosting Natural-Gas Exports can Hit Russia Where it Hurts

Guest Column by Bill Johnson

President Obama has an historic opportunity to push back against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula. And, if the President was serious when he warned Putin that there would be “costs” for invading, then he could quickly expand American influence in Eastern Europe, and send a clear message to Putin about what those “costs” will be, all without deploying a single American troop to the region. How? By immediately increasing the number of liquefied natural gas (LNG) export permits the Administration approves. It’s time for America to hit Russia where it hurts: in their wallet.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Russia holds the largest natural gas reserves in the world, is the second largest producer of dry natural gas, and third largest liquid fuels producer. Because of these vast resources, much of Europe depends on Russia for natural gas. Ukraine is particularly dependent. And Russia has never been shy about using its energy clout to achieve political ends – like shutting off Ukraine’s natural gas supply in winter months when that nation does something not to Putin’s liking. In fact, Russia’s entire economy is largely dependent on its artificial escalation of the world price for natural gas, because it presently holds a monopoly on the resource. America’s entry into the global natural gas export market would have serious impacts on Russia’s economy, and would alter current geo-political relationships.

For decades, America was in no position to export natural gas. But over the last few years, we have discovered some of the largest natural gas deposits anywhere in the world, right under our feet in places like North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and in the congressional district I represent – Eastern Ohio. These newly-available gas reserves, thought by most to be an American domestic resource, can also serve as a foreign policy advantage.

Because of the recent technological breakthrough of deep, horizontal, hydraulic fracturing, America is able to produce large quantities of natural gas and oil like never before. Some experts have estimated that because of the rapid development of this new technology, Ohio alone could have more accessible natural gas reserves than Saudi Arabia. Let that sink in for a second, and think of the resources we’ve been blessed with, and the potential they create — jobs for the American people, and energy independence from the Middle East, while helping our allies around the world advance freedom and democracy. And, all of it can be had without deploying our military forces.

As someone who spent more than 26 years in the U.S. Air Force, you might think that military action would be my first instinct in a world crisis. But I’ll never support sending our armed services into an overseas conflict unless our own national security interests are at risk, especially when we have better, safer options. And that’s exactly what I’m advocating now.

Using on our natural gas and oil resources as a check against energy extortion is not a partisan issue, nor should it be. My Democratic colleague Tim Ryan and I started a bipartisan working group in Congress to advocate for the export of liquefied natural gas. We’ve been raising awareness about the opportunity that America holds to help our friends and allies abroad by sending them natural gas that’s plentiful and underfoot, rather than keeping them dependent on unstable countries, like Russia, who forces them to grant favor in exchange for their energy supply.

Sadly, the President’s Department of Energy has slow-walked the approval of export applications. It is not only holding up American jobs in the process, but is now impeding our ability to help our allies around the globe. It is past time for the Mr. Obama’s regulators to approve these permits, especially in light of Russia’s recent actions.

Vladimir Putin made a calculation when he invaded the Crimean Peninsula – requesting that his parliament provide him with military authorization just hours after President Obama warned him that there “would be costs.” America’s allies, rivals, and adversaries are watching how our nation – specifically how President Obama — responds to his warning being summarily dismissed by Russia on the global stage.

President Obama has proven he can meet challenges beyond our borders. But, while giving our Navy SEALs the go-ahead to capture and kill Osama bin Laden was a good decision, it was not a foreign policy. Western Europe buys 76 percent of Russia’s natural gas exports. So, exporting our natural gas to Europe could very well weaken Putin’s stranglehold on the European energy market, and would be the first plank in a strategic approach to resolving the tensions flaring on the other side of the globe.

The world is a dangerous place. Russia is on the move. China is investing untold billions of its wealth in military technology. Iran is becoming a nuclear threat. Terrorist organizations continue to plot attacks on American interests in host nations that wink at them in approval or do little to stop them. If America’s ability to shape world events wanes, that void will be filled by others who don’t necessarily share our belief in freedom, human rights, and democracy.

The world is watching, Mr. President.