PICT02373-199x300Sometimes solutions are so obvious no one even mentions them. That’s the only rationale I can find for not mentioning the bleeding obvious: If Europe had more of their own energy supply, they wouldn’t be dependent on other people. One obvious solution is to use less energy, another to is to increase renewables. But that’s just deck chair rearranging of Titanic proportions. Given how the OECD has been incrementally using less energy per head year upon year for decades, and the multi billion effort aimed at renewables has given underwhelming results, it’s more like paying an interior decorator to fluff up the cushions. Despite years of failure, green calls to solve the energy trilemma of carbon, cost or security with efficiency and renewables alone result in only achieving expensive and inconsequential results. 

Proposals from both sides of the Atlantic to solve the energy security issue by exporting US LNG prescribes the right treatment of natural gas, but describes the wrong vector. Certainly, only natural gas can provide  the low carbon variable power enabling the insertion of renewables, and it can do it quickly. But how quickly?  

Given US politics we can understand how any number of Republicans are ready to almost send a flotilla of LNG tankers as the 21st century Liberty Ships

Top Democrats and Republicans keen on seeing the United States export its newfound glut of natural gas -- and tap into regional benefits -- are seizing on the conflict in Ukraine to push the Obama administration to fast-track exports to U.S. allies.

Some lawmakers may also be motivated by domestic politics. For example, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and his likely Republican challenger, Rep. Cory Gardner, are pushing dueling proposals.

Udall yesterday introduced legislation to fast-track gas exports to World Trade Organization members. Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) introduced similar legislation, H.R. 4139. Adding to the mix, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) yesterday unveiled a measure that would fast-track the Department of Energy's approval of exports to Ukraine, Soviet nations and members of the European Union.

Time out for a reality check: Cheniere’s LNG plant at Sabine Pass is the first possible export terminal but it’s still two years away.  Plenty more have been approved, but won’t come on line until 17 or 18 or beyond. Speeding up the license process won’t make any difference of more than a few months either way. The physical constraints of exports capacity are matched by the absence of import capacity on the Ukraine, Lithuanian or Polish sides. Yet, however attractive the idea is to some, we still see no mention of the shale world. 

The news that the Obama administration wants to use America’s new natural gas abundance as a lever against Russia offers a chance to change a long-term dynamic in Europe, which allows an undemocratic petrostate to dictate terms to our closest allies.

There are strange dynamics  going on here: Some in the US can see itself as providing ammunition against Putin, but neither they nor Europeans dare mention selling guns. This is like sending food aid to famine victims, but where neither donors or recipients think about solving future problems via seeds :

WASHINGTON -- Four Central European nations are urging the United States to boost natural gas exports to Europe as a hedge against the possibility that Russia could cut off its supply of gas to Ukraine.

Ambassadors from Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic made their appeal Friday in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. A similar letter was expected to be sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

The letter from the four nations, known as the Visegrad Group, asks for Congress to support speedier approval of natural gas exports, noting that the "presence of U.S. natural gas would be much welcome in Central and Eastern Europe."

The ambassadors warn that the unrest in Ukraine has brought back Cold War memories and that energy security threatens the region's residents on a daily basis.

"Gas-to-gas competition in our region is a vital aspect of national security and a key U.S. interest in the region," the ambassadors wrote in a letter obtained by The Associated Press.

Gas to gas competition? Apart from Poland, who only in the past few months have taken shale seriously and from where we expect not merely good, but great news over the next few weeks, the other nations have been in no hurry. The entire nation of Hungary is sitting on what should be a prospective shale given their long history of oil and gas. But they have been delaying shale so long that most companies have given up:

Hungary has opted for a wait-and-see policy on shale gas exploration after Sándor Fazekas, the country’s minister for rural development, told an EU meeting in Lithuania there could be 2 trillion cubic metres of gas locked in rock formations in the southern frontier of the country.

Consider that Hungary only use 10 BCM a year, but seem to prefer until last week that their erstwhile Comecon Comrades still supply 5.3 of it.

Slovakia is in even an more precarious position where Russia supplies 71% of their gas, yet they too were in no rush whatsoever to even contemplate shale gas.

But it’s the Czech Republic, almost 100% supplied by Russia who seem to suddenly sound hypocritical in the extreme.  

That’s the place where the UK’s Hutton Energy for one, tried for several years to start shale exploration, but the Czech reaction can only be charitably described as spitting in their face:

Hundreds gathered on the main square of the northwest Bohemian town of Náchod on Tuesday morning to protest the planned exploration (and eventual extraction) of shale gas deposits in the region. Although the Ministry of Environment has already issued a survey license to an Australian-owned company, a host of local municipalities have appealed the decision.

Basgas Energia Czech plans to survey 777 square kilometers in the Náchod, Trutnov and Broumov districts for deposits of shale gas, also known as “unconventional gas.” Jiří Malík, an ecologist and representative of the anti-shale gas pressure group STOP HF, told the ČTK news agency the protestors had learnt that the company’s owners would be present for a seminar hosted by the Hradec Králové regional governor Lubomír Franc (Social Democrats, ČSSD) — and wanted to send a clear message.

“We want to support the mayors who have clearly expressed their opposition to exploration and extraction of shale gas in this region. We have also found out that the American owners of the firm Basgas Energia Czech should be here and we want to show them their plans won’t go through in our region,” Malík said. 

The US should tell the Czech Republic and those like them, to take a hike in the Carpathians. God, and the United States, should only help those who help themselves.

Back to the end of the NYTimes op-ed cited above, titled "America’s Natural Gas Lever"

There will be costs to breaking the codependent relationship between Russia and Western Europe. But these costs are a price worth paying to eliminate Russia’s ability to flout international norms with impunity.

But what if America’s closest allies, especially those in the former eastern bloc, wish to have two faces? One begs for natural gas, the other has no moral concern about allegedly endangering US communities via natural gas but over-emphasises risk in their own countries.

There are costs to everything. Even in normal times, an overemphasis on risk can obscure the benefits; that’s been the story of European onshore natural gas.

A more up to date narrative would be that those who wilfully choose not access their own resources need to made aware of the consequences. The choice so far has been to have very expensive gas, very expensive renewables, rising CO2 levels and domination from overseas. If shale gas is still so bad that it isn't even considered, then the results of the actions must be made clear.

Those consequences will also affect others, including Asian LNG buyers. Why should Asian LNG buyers pay more because European markets don’t want either shale or Russian gas but are willing to outbid them on US shale to LNG gas? China and Japan’s embassies in Prague, Bratislava and Budapest should underline their concern. That concern should basically say: Don't ask us for any favours either.

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  • John Law

    Why should the USA use up its bounty to help a load of self indulgent EU states.<br />The USA and UK spent its gold since 45 defending Europe, but when they have a chance to help themselves they sit on their hands. <br />No wonder more and more people in the UK are seeing the Russians as more reliable trading partners than the EU and its vassel states.

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  • Andy

    One reason Americans would be willing to sell to Europe is to knock down the US trade deficit. The US has not been threatened with trade surpluses in a long while, and energy exports alone may not be enough to change that, but it is worth a try!

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