Putin's Crimean invasion reaches into the West's gas patch


When Russian troops invaded Crimea at the end of February, I couldn’t help but think back to a similar invasion 30 years ago, when Soviet paratroopers descended on the high school grounds in Calumet, Colo., their Kalashnikov’s blazing. They were joined by Nicaraguan and Cuban troops and aided by surgical nuke strikes on important cities. The only thing standing between the Commies and total domination of America’s Heartland was a group of high schoolers wielding vintage pistols, hunting rifles and bows and arrows.

The 1984 invasion was fictional, of course, imagined in the movie Red Dawn, a nationalistic orgy of explosions and bullet-riddled bodies. Still, it offers insights into Cold War culture, which endures in some quarters today. It’s not hard to imagine Sarah Palin pointing to Calumet (it was actually filmed in Las Vegas, N.M., with helicopter attacks in Abiquiu) as an example of the “real America,” with its letter-jacket-wearing, grenade-lobbing heroes. The invasion was made possible, we’re told, after “infiltrators came up illegal, from Mexico, Cubans mostly,” which is as good a reason as any to militarize the border. And an evil general finds patriots who might resist him via the sporting good store’s Form 4473, i.e. gun registration log. The lesson is clear: If you register your gun, Russians will hunt you down and detain you in a drive-in theater re-education camp, where you’ll be forced to watch Flashdance on infinite loop until you hate America.

But I digress. The Russians — much to the delight of Hollywood, which has had a hard time finding evil nations hellbent on world domination as of late — are back, they’re bad and they’re on the move. And once again, politicians and pundits are looking to rural Westerners to stop them. Instead of Calumet’s fictional football stars, though, this time it’s the residents and roughnecks of the gas patch who must come to the rescue.

Today’s Russia gets its strength not from its military might, but from its status as one of the world’s leading petro-states. It is Europe’s number one supplier of natural gas, and has already threatened to cut off Ukraine’s supply if the government doesn’t bend to Russia’s will. And it’s the world’s second largest oil exporter behind Saudi Arabia. That’s why global oil prices spiked in the days after the invasion of Crimea in much the same way as they do when conflict bubbles up in the Middle East.

Palin, it turns out, has eyes for Putin’s potency. Putin, said Palin recently on Fox News, “wrestles bears and drills for oil,” which stands in stark contrast to our president: a mom-jean-wearing, equivocating weakling, who is neither manly nor frack-happy enough to keep the nation secure, according to Palin.

“I’m right when I talk about that inherent link between energy and security, energy and prosperity,” she said, “and when we don’t develop our resources, and when we are not able to feed others with our resources, and so many others are reliant upon Russia, who does develop their resources …. other nations are in trouble.” She and Fox’s Sean Hannity then agreed that the way to beat Russia is to drill for more oil and gas and build more pipelines, particularly Keystone XL, regardless of those "protesters griping about an earthworm getting displaced ... that earthworm can take one for the team."

How a pipeline that will carry Canadian crude to the Gulf Coast fits into any of this is not clear, but even so, the two might want to check their facts. If energy development equals strength, then Obama could easily take Putin in a cage fight. In 2013, thanks to a decade-long oil and gas drilling frenzy that stretches from Pennsylvania to North Dakota to Texas and even California, the U.S. surpassed Russia as the world’s largest producer of natural gas and oil, and we’ve long been the world’s top coal producer. We are the leaders of the hydrocarbon arms race, and we show no signs of losing ground in the near future.

After long trailing Russia in the hydrocarbon arms race, the U.S. last year jumped into the lead. Source: Energy Information Administration.

If we fall behind Russia in this contest, it’s in sales to other nations. Today, we export some 125 million tons of coal each year, or about 12 percent of our total production, to dozens of countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. But most of our oil and gas stays here at home. We continue to consume far more oil than we produce, so it makes little sense to sell large amounts of it to others, and there’s a ban on crude oil exports anyway. Meanwhile, we have a natural gas glut, but suppliers must go through red tape to export it, and have very little infrastructure for liquefying it and shipping it overseas. That has kept us from “weaponizing” our fossil fuels in the same way Russia has.

Efforts have been underway for the last few years to change that. Several proposals are on the table to build liquified natural gas, or LNG, terminals along the coasts, and the Department of Energy has given the go-ahead to a handful of them. Putin’s Crimean adventure has spurred various voices to call for expedited permitting and construction of those terminals. By opening the doors to selling natural gas to our European friends, the theory goes, we’d render Russia’s pipeline power impotent.

Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, is pushing exports hard, and has support from his colleagues from other energy states. He introduced legislation that would fast track the Department of Energy’s permitting of natural gas export terminals and make it easier to sell the stuff overseas. Never mind the fact that building the terminals is a multi-billion dollar, time-consuming process that faces plenty of opposition from the folks who live nearby. In a statement, he said:

"The situation in Ukraine shows the urgent need for Colorado and the nation to export more natural gas. … This international crisis sharply illustrates how Colorado can play a leading role in exporting natural gas and promoting global security and stability.”

If the terminals get built, and overseas markets found for our abundant supply of domestic natural gas, then demand would go up and prices would, too. When prices go up, the drill rigs — which shifted over to the oil fields after prices slumped in 2009 and 2010 — would come back to the gas patch, along with the jobs to work them. We rural Westerners, in other words, would step up to fight the Russians, kind of like in Red Dawn.

For better or worse, the gas fields of the Piceance, Green River and San Juan Basins would boom once again. The rig hands and the roughnecks out there putting it all on the line, like soldiers in a new Cold War, this one waged with fossil fuels.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.

High Country News Classifieds