Russia’s barbaric aggression in Ukraine has galvanized a remarkable response in the West. Past transatlantic tensions over NATO commitments, Europe’s anemic defense spending and ties to Russia all dissipated within days of Russian tanks rolling across the Ukraine border.
Instead the United States and our European allies have united around a potent set of economic sanctions on Russia and military and humanitarian aid to the valiant Ukrainians. The Biden administration deserves much credit for its diplomatic efforts and military assistance thus far.
Energy policy is also central to the war effort; here the Biden administration’s response must be more robust. The United States has two immediate energy goals in the Ukraine war: keep our European allies fueled with stable energy supplies, and starve the Kremlin of oil and gas revenues. Now that the West’s unprecedented financial sanctions have cut off Russian banks from access to international capital and crushed the value of the ruble, Vladimir Putin’s main source of hard currency remains Russia’s oil and gas exports — especially with oil prices above $100 per barrel.
The current bipartisan consensus in Congress and support by the president to ban U.S. imports of Russian oil and gas products is the right move. Our lead should encourage our European allies and Pacific partners to follow. This will be more difficult for European countries that rely on Russia for about 40 percent of their natural gas. America’s dependency is much less, but the U.S. still sourced about eight percent of our liquid fuel (crude and refined) imports from Russia in 2021. And we must remember that every barrel of oil Russia sells fuels Putin’s killing machine in Ukraine.
While banning their export to our countries is the right first step, the U.S. can do more. We have abundant oil and gas reserves and some of the world’s most advanced (and cleanest) extractive technologies – such as multilateral drilling, recycling of produced water, robotics, and electric submersible pumps.
America is well-positioned to increase fossil fuel production and thus offset Europe’s diminished Russian supplies.
Current energy policies have limited America’s production levels, and this emergency requires a pivot. The president and Congress should immediately reopen drilling on federal lands, where state authorities are in agreement, such as on Alaska’s North Slope with its abundant petroleum reserves. In addition, the Biden administration has engaged in what the Wall Street Journal editorial page calls “misdirection” of claiming drilling permits are being unused while failing to make available the additional permits companies need for transit and pipeline access to bring the oil and gas to market.
The White House should also reopen the building of the Keystone XL pipeline to bring oil from our northern ally Canada. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently adopted new regulatory processes that seem to further impede natural gas production and shipment, and these should be reversed. Our policy should encourage clean energy production to relieve the surge in American fuel costs and increase exports of our abundant resources to European allies in need.
A note from history suggests the pivot is worth considering. While the Biden White House faces many similar problems as the Jimmy Carter administration — including rampant inflation, skyrocketing gas prices at the pump, a Kremlin invasion of one its neighboring countries, a hostile Iran — President Biden would do well to take a page from the playbook of the man who succeeded President Carter: President Ronald Reagan.
In designing policies to renew the American economy, President Reagan pursued an integrated, mutually-reinforcing strategy. He cut regulations, encouraged more domestic oil and gas production, pressured our NATO allies to curtail their reliance on Russian oil and gas exports, protected Persian Gulf energy supply lines for us and our allies in Europe and Asia, and encouraged partner nations like Saudi Arabia to increase their oil output. What followed? An American economic renewal, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the peaceful end of the Cold War.
All of that was achieved without the later technology boon that unlocked natural gas, making the U.S. a net exporter of energy capable of selling liquified natural gas to our economic partners.
Climate change is a serious issue, but it won’t be solved by policies that punish American energy producers, leave our European allies dependent on Russian and Middle Eastern oil and gas, and let China (the world’s largest carbon emitter) off the hook. Instead, climate progress will follow from geopolitical progress.
Now, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leading Democrats in Congress have stepped forward with Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell to legislate a ban on Russian imports to the U.S., including oil and gas. The president has announced agreement.
The president could lead this bipartisan sentiment further by lifting the restrictions on U.S. production to increase supply, lower prices and continue exporting LNG to our allies who depend on Russia for so much of their energy needs.
Doing so would produce a rare policy trifecta: more American jobs, more pressure on Russia and more support for Ukraine.
Kay Bailey Hutchison is a former U.S. Senator and affiliated with the Kay Bailey Hutchison Center for Energy, Law & Business at The University of Texas at Austin.
William Inboden is the executive director of Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor in the LBJ School at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.