Long ago, in a blog far far away, I used to write a lot more about energy issues. Haven't done that a lot lately, mostly because I figure a lot of it's already been said and I have no interest in repeating myself. (I suppose I could take requests...) But every once in a while something new pops up that piques my interest. Today, it's Jackson Diehl's weeks-old op-ed in the Washington Post (somehow I missed it on December 25th) ably deconstructed by Jerome a Paris here.
The short version is: A NATO response to the Russians charging market prices for their gas is probably a bad idea. The long version is below.
To crib some beginning points from Jerome, let's point out the basics:
- The Russians haven't charged usurious gas rates to their former satellites. They've brought their contract prices up to market levels. While this is an economic shock to the long-subsidized states of the former USSR and Warsaw Pact, this isn't (or shouldn't rightly be) a cause for alarm and sabre-rattling.
- The French and Germans are doing the least screaming about this, the British and Americans are doing the most. Is this because the Germans are surrender-monkeys, or because of the downturn in British and American domestic gas production?
- Russia simply cannot afford to "cut off" Europe's natural gas. Gas is more like electricity than oil -- it moves through pipelines, and it's not possible for Russia to simply find other customers to sell to. It's either Europe or nothing. (Russia is in the process of planning and building a Siberian pipeline to Japan and China, but that's nowhere near completion and will have limited uses anyway.) In any case, scaremongering over any kind of embargo is delusional.
Notwithstanding all this, Richard Lugar wants NATO to start working on a unified response to any kind of gas cutoff to member states.
Weakening Russia's hold over European energy supplies requires measures that would be costly and difficult, such as building new terminals for importing liquefied natural gas or new pipelines to carry oil and gas from Central Asia and the Caucasus to Europe.
Or, you know, using less gas. Which, if you're concerned about global warming, you should be doing anyway. Maybe I'm in a bad mood today, but this bit really got me:
That sounds daunting at a time when NATO has its hands full trying to fight a war in Afghanistan. But the energy threat goes to the alliance's historic purpose: defending democratic Europe from attack by the autocratic and belligerent power on its Eastern frontier.
Sure, but when NATO started the "autocratic and belligerent power on the Eastern frontier" was in Germany. The Clinton administration pushed those frontiers a hell of a long way further east. Like it or not, that move -- and the ensuing departure of former satellites from Russia's sphere of influence -- is what has brought us to this point in the game. Putin sees no need to subsidize Georgian or Ukrainian industries with cheap gas -- why should he? Is there something inherently evil with charging market prices for energy?
This is all extremely silly anyway. First off, to my knowledge the US as yet imports exactly zero natural gas from Russia, making this a purely European matter. That may change in the future with LNG terminals, but even if the US does begin importing from Russia, the simplest, fastest, and cheapest way for any country to reduce its vulnerability to natural gas shortages is to unplug some air conditioners in the summer. (Warmer winters are already taken care of.)
Talk of using an explicitly military alliance as a means of "dealing with" that uppity Russian is a recipe for disaster. And, incidentally, its exactly the kind of thinking that's got America hip-deep in the big sandy. Instead of going to the military drawer any time there's even a prospect of higher energy prices, let's please consider something as radical as consuming less.