U.S. Oil Industry Uses Ukraine Invasion to Push for More Drilling at Home

Russian troops hadn’t yet begun their full-on assault on Ukraine late Wednesday when the rallying cry came from the American oil and gas industry.

“As crisis looms in Ukraine, U.S. energy leadership is more important than ever,” the American Petroleum Institute, the powerful industry lobby group, wrote on Twitter with a photo that read: “Let’s unleash American energy. Protect our energy security.”

The crux of the industry’s argument is that any effort to restrain drilling in America makes a world already reeling from high oil prices more dependent on oil and gas from Russia, a rival and belligerent fossil fuel superpower.

The industry’s demands have focused on reversing steps the Biden administration has taken to start reining in the production of fossil fuels, the main driver of climate change.

The administration should release permits for drilling on federal lands, the lobby urged, and push ahead with leasing more tracts for offshore oil and development. The A.P.I., which condemned the invasion, also called on President Biden to accelerate permits for energy infrastructure and to roll back legal and regulatory uncertainty — industry speak for getting rules and lawsuits out of the way.

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The crisis “has the given industry a great talking point,” said Kathy Hipple, a finance professor at the MBA in Sustainability program at Bard College and a research fellow at the Ohio River Valley Institute, a nonprofit think tank that focuses on oil and gas. But the industry misses the point that “we’re overly dependent on fossil fuels,” she said.

For one, experts are in agreement that nations around the world need to stop approving new coal-fired power plants, and new oil and gas fields, to avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change, Professor Hipple said. “Does anyone want to continue to be dependent on oligarchs in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Canada’s oil, a handful of private companies in the United States? To my mind, that’s not resilient,” she said.

Environmental groups criticized the industry’s logic. “It’s pretty rich for the oil and gas industry to talk about how reliable fossil fuels are when any big storm that happens, any time a war pops up, their reliability is thrown into question,” said Nathaniel Stinnett, founder and executive director of the Environmental Voter Project, a group that mobilizes voters in elections. “Wars aren’t fought over solar energy. You don’t see these huge price spikes in clean energy,” he said.

Some Republican lawmakers began to echo the oil and gas industry’s demands.

“It’s now clearer than ever what is at stake when anti-American energy policies make us and Europe more dependent on Russian oil and natural gas,” said Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Washington State and the Republican leader of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. “I continue to urge President Biden to restore America’s energy dominance. It’s our most powerful weapon against Putin,” she said.

Mr. Biden’s attempts to quell concerns, promising that his administration will do everything it can to secure energy independence and “limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump,” have fallen on deaf ears.

“You need to do much more. You need to get your boot off the neck of American energy producers,” Dan Sullivan, a Republican senator from Alaska said in a video response. The administration, he said, should revive the Keystone XL pipeline, for example — the embattled project that would have carried petroleum from Canadian tar sands to Nebraska — and resume issuing drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest tracts of untouched wilderness in the United States.

The oil and gas lobby has been less vocal about putting sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas capacity itself. In fact, even as the United States and Western Europe have imposed other economic sanctions, and Germany has put Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline on hold, the Biden administration has so far held back on measures that directly affect Russian energy companies, instead focusing on banks, as well as government officials and their families.

Some of the industry’s biggest drillers, including Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil, are involved in oil and gas projects within Russia.

Aseem Prakash, a political science professor and founding director of the Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington, said continued pressure from the climate community meant Mr. Biden was unlikely to backslide on major climate-related decisions, like his canceling of the Keystone pipeline.

“But there could be surreptitious rollbacks, like less aggressive measures in terms of oil or shale leases. And their rhetoric will have to be toned down,” he said, referring to the Biden administration. In places like Pennsylvania, for example, Democrats “simply cannot afford to say, ‘Oil prices are rising, but let’s not revive shale.’ That’s political suicide,” he said.

These changes weren’t just coming as a result of the Ukraine crisis, he added. Rising gas prices had already started to shift the picture months ago.

The larger worry, he said, was that climate “could also get completely shoved off the agenda,” including hopes of passing an ambitious climate spending bill. “Everybody is talking Ukraine, everybody’s talking NATO,” he said, referring to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an alliance that Ukraine has sought to join over the objections of President Vladimir Putin of Russia. But the “climate problems aren’t going away,” Professor Prakash said.

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