Mike Tony | March 12, 2022
Charleston Gazette-Mail


Russia’s war on Ukraine has pushed the United States and its allies in Europe toward an energy crossroads. West Virginia’s congressional delegation is urging a familiar path.

Gov. Jim Justice said the war provided an “opportunity beyond belief” for West Virginia during an address on energy Friday. Justice questioned the reality of climate change despite clear scientific evidence proving the phenomenon threatening 21st-century livability on the planet is human-driven and real.

“[T]hey’re the parsley around the sides of the plate,” Justice said of nuclear, hydrogen, wind and solar energy. “The meat and potatoes are gas, our oil and our coal.”

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., advocated investing in fossil fuel infrastructure as a long-term asset during a committee hearing Thursday.

Manchin said he had legislation ready to green-light completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Mired in legal and regulatory challenges, that project would cross 11 West Virginia counties to provide up to 2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations to markets in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions of the U.S.

Mountain Valley Pipeline attorneys argued in a filing Friday that a federal court should overturn a ruling holding up the project partly because the pipeline would free up natural gas for domestic consumption and export to Europe.

“We’re going to invest in clean technologies, but we’re going to defend and protect ourselves and protect the free world,” Manchin told reporters Tuesday. “And most of the free world runs on the horsepower of fossil. That’s a reality. Get with it.”

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., recently introduced a bill that would authorize the Keystone XL Pipeline, a proposed extension of an existing pipeline that would have traveled from Alberta, Canada, to Nebraska. Developers abandoned the project after President Joe Biden revoked a key permit for the project during his first day in office.

During a floor speech Thursday, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., called for the accelerated buildout of oil and gas infrastructure. “I don’t see our European friends trying to secure alternative sources for more solar panels,” Capito said.

In response to 41% of its natural gas imports and 27% of its crude oil imports coming from Russia, the European Union has committed to a different path. The EU’s executive body announced on Tuesday that it was accelerating plans to break its reliance on all fossil fuels, not just energy that helps finance Russia’s war.

“An integrated EU energy system largely based on renewables and greater energy efficiency is the most cost effective solution to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels at the level of homes, buildings and industry,” the European Commission said, resolving to slash dependence on Russian gas by two thirds before the end of the year.

Experts say Biden’s ban on U.S. imports of Russian energy issued Tuesday to punish the country for its war on Ukraine has added to Americans’ pain at the pump. The national average for a gallon of gas was $4.06 Tuesday, AAA reported.

The sixth-largest weekly increase nationwide was in West Virginia, where the average rose by a whopping 55 cents from the week before. Escalating pump prices have sharpened focus on where America gets its energy, leading to calls to ramp up fossil fuel production.

“Increasing our domestic natural gas and oil production will make the United States energy secure, strengthening our economy and further enabling us to assist our allies across the world,” Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia Executive Director Charlie Burd said in an emailed statement.

Expanding domestic drilling is unlikely to prevent expected further rises in gas prices, which are determined by the global market for crude oil, the raw commodity used to make gasoline. Instead, clean energy backers worry, it could lock the nation into added greenhouse gas emissions for years to come.

The supply and demand determining crude oil prices have been upset by global reaction to the war in Ukraine, and the U.S. ban on Russian energy exports has made it harder for Russian oil to enter the global market, driving gas prices upward.

The U.S. has been producing record-breaking levels of gas and oil already. U.S. natural gas marketed production hit an all-time high in 2021, rising 53% above 2011 output. The Energy Information Administration projected last month that U.S. crude oil production would rise to record-high levels next year.

The nearly 2.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas produced in West Virginia in 2020 was about 10 times more than the state’s 2010 total. West Virginia’s total crude oil production reached an all-time high of 20 million barrels in 2020, more than 10 times greater than in 2010.

The U.S. became a net annual petroleum exporter for the first time since at least 1949 in 2020, according to the Energy Information Administration. U.S. crude oil imports from Russia hit at least a 26-year high last year, but still comprised less than 8% of all crude oil imports.

The Biden administration approved 34% more permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands (3,557) in its first year than the Trump administration’s first-year total of 2,658, according to a Center for Biological Diversity analysis of federal data released in January. But record-breaking oil and gas production and exports haven’t insulated the U.S. from the volatility of the global market, fueling arguments the U.S. must accelerate deployment of clean energy and end reliance on fossil fuels hastening catastrophic climate change.

“We expanded oil and gas production to the point that we went from being a net importer to a net exporter. Yet, here we are today facing the same kinds of price surges,” said Sean O’Leary, senior researcher for the Ohio River Valley Institute, a Johnstown, Pennsylvania-based pro-clean energy think tank.

“The clear lesson is that increases in production and exposure to global markets do not moderate price fluctuations, they increase them.” “[T]he only real energy independence is renewable energy,” Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action President Eric Engle said. Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action was one of more than 200 groups to sign a letter calling on the Biden administration Wednesday to use the Defense Production Act to scale up production and deployment of renewable energy.

The groups urged Biden to invoke his power to deploy renewable energy technologies and heat pumps that could be exported to Ukraine and the rest of Europe.

“If your goal is to weaken the influence Russia exercises because of European dependence on natural gas, the fastest and least costly way of doing so is to reduce demand for natural gas here and encourage Europe to do the same,” O’Leary said.

Plans for a renewable future O’Leary noted that Europe is speeding more quickly down that path than the U.S. The EU aims to diversify its gas supply through higher liquefied natural gas and pipeline imports from non-Russian suppliers as a stopgap measure. But the EU is eyeing a rapid clean energy buildout to solidify its independence from Russian energy. The EU called for a rollout of solar, wind and heat pumps and development of hydrogen infrastructure, storage facilities and port capacities.

“Solar and wind energy already are less expensive, or as expensive, on par with fossil fuels in most places around the U.S. and around the world,” said Kenneth Gillingham, economics professor at the Yale School of the Environment. “Thus, they’re going to be the bulwark. You can very cost-effectively add much greater levels of renewables to our electricity system without it even raising rates and costing more. You’re even going to be saving money in many cases.”

The European Commission estimated that an additional 15 million tons of renewable hydrogen can replace 25 billion to 50 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas per year by 2030.

The International Energy Agency noted the possibility of the EU ramping up liquefied natural gas imports in the near term. But the agency also noted that a concerted policy effort to fast-track further renewable capacity additions could deliver another 20 terawatt-hours over the next year. That is in addition to the 100-plus terawatt-hours in solar and wind capacity the EU expects in 2022.

The agency called for speeding up the replacement of gas boilers with heat pumps and accelerating energy efficiency upgrades in buildings and industry. The West Virginia Senate approved a resolution Friday asserting a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strengthen national security and energy independence and supply world energy markets.”

The resolution called for the Legislature to “establish a path forward” for West Virginia coal and natural gas to be delivered to NATO countries. The measure noted that West Virginia coal could be converted to liquid fuels to address oil and diesel fuel shortages.

“West Virginia’s opportunity is so substantial today, it could influence a coal and fossil energy renaissance of unprecedented proportions,” West Virginia Coal Association President Chris Hamilton said. But the capacity for European liquefied natural gas terminals to receive shipments from the U.S. and other suppliers is limited, a further constraint on America’s potential to quickly protect allies through gas exports.

Supporting an energy transition An analysis of U.S. policy options to reduce Russian energy dependence released Tuesday by the Rhodium Group, an independent research provider, said the most important role U.S. policymakers can play in the months ahead is overseeing new sanctions on Russia.

The Rhodium Group predicted that providing Europe and other countries with alternative sources of oil and gas “will only go so far” in limiting Russian economic leverage. The group suggested low-emissions technologies would be most effective in significantly lowering European reliance on Russian gas. The group urged the U.S. to “significantly accelerate” development and deployment. Such investments could focus on hydrogen, sustainable aviation fuels, long-duration electricity storage, advanced battery technology and manufacturing incentives to bring those technologies to scale.

The analysis encourages using the coalition of countries countering Russian aggression in Europe to coordinate an international strategy once the current crisis has passed for diversifying global supply of minerals like lithium, cobalt and nickel that would be vital to create the technologies to support a clean energy economy. Witnesses during Thursday’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee meeting highlighted the importance of reducing China’s grip on the market for minerals essential to technology products and national security.

Michelle Michot Foss, a fellow at the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, cited an energy agency analysis that mineral demand for clean energy technologies would at least quadruple by 2040 to meet climate goals.

The U.S. Department of Energy last month announced it was collecting information through March from government agencies, industry members, developers and potentially impacted communities on the construction and operation of a rare earth element facility to turn mine waste into valuable materials for clean energy technology. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act enacted in November provides $140 million for the rare earth element and critical minerals extraction and separation refinery program.

The department also announced last month it would invest $2.91 billion to bolster production of advanced batteries vital to growing clean energy technologies, including electric vehicles and energy storage, under the federal infrastructure law. But it’s the Build Back Better Act, Democrats’ climate and social safety spending package, that clean energy proponents say would do the most to support infrastructure that would lessen reliance on Russian and fossil fuel energy.

Just four days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came the release of a report crafted by 270 scientists from 67 countries for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The landmark report found that climate change is occurring faster than previously thought and warned of a quickly closing window to ensure a habitable future.

The House of Representatives passed the Build Back Better Act in November. But it has stalled in the Senate, where all Republicans oppose it and Manchin and Sen. Krysten Sinema, D-Ariz., have been noncommittal. Manchin came out against the House version of the bill in December, citing in part concerns about inflation and the national debt.

At the crossroads Mountain Valley Pipeline developers recently nixed a targeted in-service date of summer 2022 for the project after federal court rulings delayed approval of key permits.

Capacity issues in the U.S. and Europe mean an American liquefied natural gas support system for allies across the Atlantic isn’t imminent. Clean energy proponents argue that by the time oil and gas production can be scaled up, the U.S. could make significant progress toward renewable energy buildout instead. It’s the path in the energy crossroads, advocates say, that doesn’t lead back to Russia.

“As long as we’re reliant on natural gas and oil,” O’Leary said, “We’ll be at the mercy of global commodity markets and the whims of the Russians…of the world.”