Matthew Stepp: Ukraine crisis time to pivot to renewable energy
It didn’t take long for fossil fuel interests in the United States to exploit Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In fact, it happened before the invasion even began.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war quickly created an uncomfortable reality for industry giants like Shell and Exxon, which have invested billions of dollars into Russia over the last several decades. While fossil fuel executives banked record profits, Mr. Putin filled his war chest.
Before current sanctions, 36% of Russia’s budget came from oil and gas, allowing Mr. Putin to accumulate a surplus of $630 billion in reserves that Russia could use to weather economic sanctions from Europe and the United States.
Those business relations changed overnight after Mr. Putin commenced his invasion of Ukraine. Fossil fuel companies rapidly cut ties with Russia because doing business with Mr. Putin was now condemned across the world, and rightfully so.
But now the industry was faced with another conundrum: how to replace the Russia-sized hole left in their long-term finances?
On the eve of the invasion, the fossil fuel industry’s trade association, the American Petroleum Institute (API), went public with a proposal to replace European dependence on Russian natural gas with European dependence on American natural gas.
According to industry leaders, all that’s needed to accomplish that lofty goal is open access to drilling on America’s public lands, streamlined permits for new pipelines and weakened environmental and public health regulations — in other words, all their long-held hopes and dreams.
The fracking champions in Pennsylvania’s state Legislature quickly got the memo. Three state senators — Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, and Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming — announced a resolution calling on President Joe Biden to restart the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, which is located thousands of miles away and has nothing to do with the Keystone State.
Then, state Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, announced the “End Russian Aggression Act,” which seeks to increase drilling in Pennsylvania, speed up permitting and fund pipeline development — repeating API’s wish list almost verbatim. But Mr. Grove’s bill would also block Pennsylvania from joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), even though doing that would increase our own ties to the same global fossil fuel market that Mr. Putin has been manipulating.
Pennsylvanians and our elected leaders should look beyond the fossil fuel industry’s prevarications: Doubling down on fracked gas won’t help Europe or Ukraine in the short or long term, nor is it the panacea for energy independence that its boosters claim.
First, replacing Europe’s reliance on Russian gas with American gas is too expensive. Fracked gas must be pipelined to export facilities where it is treated and cooled to cryogenic temperatures, loaded onto specially configured ships and delivered to ports where it is heated and regasified before being sent to consumers. Billions of dollars in processing, transportation and new infrastructure costs guarantee that exporting fracked gas will never be competitive.
In addition, increasing gas exports makes Pennsylvania’s electricity prices ripe for foreign manipulation. As of 2021, more than 52% of our electricity generation came from fracked gas power plants. If we expand our gas exports, volatility in gas prices anywhere in the world will have a greater ripple effect in our electricity market. Suddenly, a problem in another country’s gas fields, or the decisions of petro-states like Russia, could make electricity and heating bills spike at home.
Lastly, and most importantly, fossil fuel industry policies are incompatible with a stable climate future. Fracked gas suppliers and their financiers want customers to sign long-term contracts where they commit to buy fuel for up to 25 years. That is something that many European — and global — buyers are unwilling to do or cannot do.
Not only are such contracts completely incompatible with the United States’ goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 52% from 2005 levels by 2030, but they are even less compatible with Europe’s stronger attempts to limit emissions.
The oil and gas industry’s plan — and the proposed state legislation to enact it — has nothing to do with creating energy independence or undermining Vladimir Putin. Look to Europe, which is directly threatened by Mr. Putin’s turn to war, which has already come to the conclusion that an economy increasingly tied to fossil fuels is highly unpredictable, costly and dangerous — particularly when we factor in the impacts of climate change.
To that end, Germany announced it is accelerating its timeline to achieve 100% renewable energy. The European Union is readying an initiative to fast-track renewable energy projects and to cut the continent’s use of fossil fuels in half in eight years. And most EU countries are ahead of schedule in their renewable energy goals and are not slowing down. Clearly, fracked gas is not the answer.
It’s disappointing that many of Pennsylvania’s leaders are getting wrapped up in the fossil fuel industry’s wartime grift. Now is not the time to double-down on failed energy and environmental policies. For Pennsylvania, Ukraine and the world, now is the time to accelerate the turn to the renewable resources that will create a safer, healthier future.
Matthew Stepp is the executive vice president and chief of staff for PennFuture, a statewide environmental advocacy organization.