As the crisis in Ukraine plays itself out, there are concerns any sanctions leveled by the U.S. or the European Union (EU) against Russia might prompt retaliation from Moscow — which currently supplies Europe with a large percentage of its oil and natural gas.
The crisis is also adding new fuel to an ongoing debate about whether American’s oil and natural gas should be sold internationally — to both create new markets and perhaps break Moscow’s current energy choke hold on European economies.
Some experts say there’s a strategic, geopolitical argument to be made in favor of the concept. Russian President Vladimir Putin “has no qualms about using energy as a weapon,” according to retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Jones, a former NATO commander in Europe.
Jones also served as the Obama Administation’s National Security Advisor. And in an interview Thursday on “CBS This Morning,” he noted the EU is “dependent to the tune of about 30 percent on Russian gas and oil. And we have technology that is transforming our own economy in fracking for oil shale and oil gas.”
And, not surprisingly, America’s energy sector is echoing that same idea. The American Petroleum Institute, citing the unrest in Ukraine, is renewing calls for the Department of Energy (DOE) to approve exports of U.S. liquidfied natural gas (LNG).
“Our allies in Europe are eager for a reliable partner to enter the marketplace as a stable, secure source of natural gas, and the American industry is ready to make that happen,” Erik Milito, API Director of Upstream and Industry Operations, said in a press statement.
“Thanks to the U.S. energy revolution,” he continued, “America is now the world’s leading producer of natural gas, which means that our LNG exports could significantly strengthen the global energy market against crisis and manipulation. That’s a win-win for our economy and for our friends.”
Currently, under the Natural Gas Act of 1938, any person or company wanting to import or export natural gas in the U.S., including LNG, must first get authorization from the Energy Deparment. And as of last month, the DOE reportedly approved several dozen applications to export LNG to countries that have free trade agreements with the U.S.
But it’s one thing to have natural gas reserves; it’s another to export it without pipelines — like the ones Russia has running through Ukraine and on to Europe. To create LNG, natural gas has to be super-cooled and then transported in specially-built, double-hulled ships. And the U.S. is not expected to have its first LNG export terminal up and running until mid-2015.
So even if large-scale LNG exports are approved, there’s going to have to be some major infrastructure investments, says Ron Rizzuto, professor of finance at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business.
“Since you have a capital investment involved it will be slower,” he added, “but we’re definitely going to see more replacement over time.”
Rizzuto, who studies energy and transportation issues, also expects natural gas demand will increase globally as the U.S. brings more supplies on line, but he expects prices to remain steady.
“I don’t believe that we’re going to go to $200 a barrel,” he said. “The demand will be there but the increased supply will make it still pretty cost effective. When you start using natural gas, there’s a lot of availability there that will keep natural gas prices not as low as they are now. But prices will not quadruple or anything like that.”
For the moment, natural gas continues to flow from Russia to Ukraine and onwards to Europe. And Paolo Scaroni, CEO of the Italian oil and gas ENI corporation, tells the Platts energy information group that — even if the current tensions over Ukraine were to prompt Russia to shut off its pipelines — there are enough natural gas supplies on-hand to get the EU through the remaining weeks of winter.
ENI is also a partner in the so called South Stream gas pipeline, which is expected to transport gas from Russia via an underwater, Black Sea link to Europe — without transiting the Ukraine — starting in 2016.
But Scaroni warns that all these scenarios might change, if the EU opts to “take hard decisions toward Russia and the exchange of energy with Russia.”