US bans Russian oil but activists want broader break with fossil fuels

Phasing out the consumption of fossil fuels is seen as critical in both the fight against the climate crisis and the violence of petrostates.

Image Credit: White House, public domain

President Biden signed an executive order banning the import of Russian oil and gas on March 8, but activists around the world are calling for a more comprehensive break with fossil fuels, warning against replacing Russian fuels with a new drilling frenzy elsewhere. 

“Today I’m announcing the United States is targeting the main artery of Russia’s economy,” President Biden said on Tuesday. “This is a step that we’re taking to inflict further pain on Putin. But there will be costs as well here in the United States.” Gasoline prices are rising quickly, now averaging over $4.10 nationally, as Russian oil gets choked off from the global market. 

Biden couched his support for more oil and gas in the short-term with the need to accelerate the clean energy transition.

But experts and activists in Ukraine, the U.S., and around the world say the ban on Russian oil imports won’t do much if the broader solution is simply finding other sources of oil and gas. 

“Up until now, Russia has been taking in $500 million a day in oil and gas sales. That’s hundreds of billions every year that Putin can put toward suppressing his people, undermining western democracies, and building his war machine,” Lieutenant General Russel L. Honoré, former commanding general of the U.S. First Army, told reporters during a media briefing. “Putin is weaponizing gas, and calls to increase exports play right into his hands.”

Headshot of an older man with white mustache, blue blazer, tinted glasses, and tan baseball cap reading 'ARMY'
Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré at a 2018 rally in support of BP oil spill cleanup workers in New Orleans. Credit: Julie Dermansky

Led by Ukrainian activists, a coalition of more than 465 organizations across 50 countries signed a letter calling on the world to not only reject Russian oil and gas, but to rapidly phase out all fossil fuels. 

“Continuing any relationship with Russia means supporting war in Ukraine, killing children, women, and men on the streets of peaceful cities,” Yevheniia Zasiadko, head of climate department at the Center for Environmental Initiatives Ecoaction, said in a statement accompanying the letter. “This is the breaking point, where Europe must completely abandon fossil fuel from Russia, stop all business and support of fossil projects.”

On the same day Biden announced the Russian fossil fuel ban, the European Commission proposed a strategy to slash Europe’s use of Russian gas by two-thirds within a year. The plan calls for more liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports and more gas storage, but also a rapid expansion of renewable energy and energy efficiency. 

Europe is seeking to speed up its break with fossil fuels, while using more in the short run, but such a path in the U.S. is much more contested. 

Oil lobbyists seek to profit from war

Coming off a rough few years with the pandemic, the oil industry now appears poised to capitalize off of the war and the chaos in energy markets. As industry executives gathered in Houston this week for the annual CERAWeek oil industry conference, many were “feeling very good about themselves,” as the New York Times put it. With oil prices soaring, quarterly profits are destined to balloon. 

But as gasoline prices rise, industry executives want to pin the blame on the Biden administration while also securing longer-term benefits for their companies. Launching a new PR offensive, oil and gas executives and lobbyists are denouncing climate policy and also demanding more lenient policies to allow the buildout of more fossil fuel infrastructure. 

In late February, the American Exploration & Production Council (AXPC) – a lobbying group for independent frackers – sent a letter to the White House, calling on the U.S. government to approve LNG export terminals and pipelines, and to support LNG infrastructure in Europe. The American Petroleum Institute had similar demands, while also calling for more offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Industry lobbyists are making the rounds on cable news, and in national newspapers, making the case that the White House needs to support more oil and gas. 

The lobbying and PR blitz has been reinforced by Republican politicians, who are even more belligerent in their protestations of the Biden administration, blaming it for the run up in gasoline prices, without evidence.

They are also playing a double game. Republican Senators are supporting the ban on Russian oil, which is driving up prices, and in the next breath blaming the Biden administration for the nationwide pain at the gasoline pump. Former Texas Governor and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry took to Fox News on March 9, telling Biden to “take the foot off of the neck of the oil and gas industry,” and said Biden’s criticism of the oil and gas industry was “unpatriotic.”

As Kate Aronoff reported for the New Republic in late February, the oil and gas industry is hoping to use the war in Ukraine to justify the expanded use of long-term contracts for new LNG infrastructure, potentially locking Europe into fossil fuel infrastructure for decades.

One of AXPC’s proposals for the White House was for the Biden administration to coordinate U.S. and European business interests in order to “green light” more LNG import infrastructure in Europe. 

But none of the proposed solutions from the industry – streamlined permitting for LNG export terminals, pipelines, leasing on federal lands, and offshore oil drilling – would have any near-term impact on the global energy shortage. New drilling projects and infrastructure take years to develop, offering very little to Europe in the current crisis. Or to the average American filling up their gas tank.

“LNG is not a solution,” Julian Popov, fellow at the European Climate Foundation and former Bulgarian Environment Minister, told reporters this week. “Each gas export terminal takes four to six years to build, meaning enough U.S. gas to power businesses and heat homes will never reach Europe in time for next winter.”

“Oil and gas companies love to talk about ‘freedom gas’, or the idea of American gas freeing Europe from its reliance on Russia,” Popov said. “In reality, once it hits the open market, U.S. gas is heading more and more to Asia, where petroleum conglomerates can sell for a higher price.”

If the oil and gas industry gets its way, using Russia’s war in Ukraine to expand the use of pipelines and export terminals, and requiring even more drilling, the transition away from oil and gas will only grow more difficult. And the stakes for the climate, only more dire. 

Calls to accelerate break with fossil fuels

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned late last month that we are on the verge of “irreversible” impacts of global warming and that there is a “brief and rapidly closing” window for action. The International Energy Agency also reported on March 8 that global carbon dioxide emissions hit a record high in 2021, increasing 6 percent from the year before. The news came and went quickly, forgotten amid wall-to-wall coverage of the war in Ukraine.

But the head of Ukraine’s delegation at the IPCC, Svitlana Krakovska, told her colleagues that Russia’s war and the climate emergency are linked. “Human-induced climate change and war against Ukraine have direct connections and the same roots. They are fossil fuels and humanity’s dependence on them,” she said in late February.

In an act of immense courage and a show of solidarity, thousands of Russian scientists also spoke out against the war in an open letter, risking the loss of their jobs and political persecution by the Russian government. “It is bitter for us to realize that our country, together with other republics of the former USSR, which made a decisive contribution to the victory over Nazism, has now become the instigator of a new war on the European continent,” the letter stated. “We demand an immediate halt to all military operations directed against Ukraine.”

Anti-war protester in Berlin, Germany. February 24, 2022. Credit: Lewin Bormann(CC BY-SA 2.0)

While the fossil fuel industry is hoping to capitalize off of the war, the calls to accelerate the clean energy transition are growing louder. A coalition of over 200 groups called on the Biden administration to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up renewable energy, with a particular focus on the production of electric heat pumps that can be shipped to Europe to replace the use of methane gas in homes and businesses. 

The Defense Production Act is a Korean War-era piece of legislation that allows the federal government to order private companies to increase production of key materials. More recently, it was used during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic by the Trump administration to scale up production of masks and ventilators. 

“You can deploy your executive powers to weaken the geopolitical power of fossil fuels, address the climate emergency, and prevent further mass suffering,” the groups argued. 

As Europe moves quickly to drive Russian gas out of its energy system, the U.S. is still in a holding pattern. The climate and energy provisions written into Democrats’ now-defunct Build Back Better Act in Congress, would not only achieve most of the emissions reductions the U.S. is aiming for by 2030, but it would also eliminate twice the current imports of oil that the U.S. gets from Russia, according to a new report from Energy Innovation LLC. Some of the provisions are once again back on the table as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), the key holdout, has expressed renewed interest. 

The urgent need to address both the climate crisis and the war in Ukraine leads to the same solution – slashing the consumption of fossil fuels. 

“Getting off oil and gas is essential to the national security of all free nations,” Honoré, the former military commander, said. “Under the status quo, democracies are literally financing the atrocities of authoritarian regimes like Russia.”


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