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Joe Biden’s Low-Energy Blunder

Russia's opportunistic ambition is directly tied to President Biden's reckless energy policy and related geopolitical weakness.

The timing of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is no accident. The Russian economy is completely dependent on oil and gas exports. With oil prices rising and Europe increasingly dependent on Russian natural gas, the Kremlin is in a much stronger geopolitical position now than it has been for many years. Indeed, just a few months ago, President Biden implored Russia to increase oil production to ease rising gas prices, but to no avail.

Just 80 days later, he made another plea, this time for Russia to pull back from the Ukrainian border. This request has likewise fallen on deaf ears. The President has lamented that there is little we can do: Russia will likely invade Ukraine, and the U.S. will likely be forced to respond with military action. As President Biden knows all too well, military intervention against Russia would not be a sign of strength, but of impotence. America’s weakness was not inevitable, however; it is a known consequence of this administration’s reckless energy policy and the weakness it showed in its botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Understanding how we got here requires a brief detour into the history of energy geopolitics.

For nearly a century, a key issue in international affairs has been who controls the production of fuels and thus their prices. This was first shown in the Second World War, when American and Russian oil allowed the Allies to sustain their war machines until Japan and Germany exhausted their much more limited oil reserves and were unable to effectively fight back. After the war, American oil and coal sustained a massive manufacturing and energy exporting boom, buoying the fortunes of the American worker and putting the United States in a position of unprecedented international power and influence.

But in the 1970s, American oil production peaked and then declined, substantially weakening our position. Thus, in response to U.S. support of Israel, Saudi Arabia exploited our dependence on foreign oil by imposing an embargo, leading to the first oil crisis and the 1973–75 recession. American oil continued to decline for the remainder of that decade, leading to its eventual outstripping first by the USSR, in 1975, and then by Saudi Arabia, in 1979.

The tables turned somewhat in the 1980s, however, when the Soviet Union’s oil production began declining. Then, in one of the great moments of American diplomacy, President Reagan’s CIA director William Casey in 1986 convinced the Saudis to ramp up oil production. The ensuing price reductions deprived the USSR of even more oil revenue, causing a recession from which the USSR never recovered and which led directly to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism.

The U.S. wisely charted a different course during the same period, reducing its reliance on foreign oil by expanding other domestic energy sources such as nuclear power, which grew 15 times from 1970 to 1990. Still, being a net-importer of oil gave foreign actors—many of whom were not our friends—significant leverage.

This all changed in 2008 with the Shale Revolution. U.S. oil and gas production rose dramatically for the first time in decades, launching the U.S. back atop the world’s energy supply chain. By 2014 the U.S. again surpassed Russia in combined oil and gas production. This energy dominance pushed the American economy out of the post-2008 doldrums and allowed for the peaceful exertion of American influence abroad.

Thus, in February 2014, in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Obama was able to impose stiff sanctions, restricting Russian access to energy and arms without having to worry that Russian reprisals would negatively affect the global economy. These sanctions led to the collapse of the Russian ruble and to the Russian financial crisis. As a direct result, Russia was forced to limit its military ambitions in the region.

Now, almost exactly six years later, President Biden has no such luxury. An America that begs Russia to increase oil production in the fall is not a credible threat to impose sanctions in the winter. And so, President Biden has been reduced to making crude threats of domestically unpopular military intervention, and the real possibility of dragging the world into an international crisis.

It doesn’t have to be this way. While U.S. oil and gas production have continued to rise, they have lagged surging demand as this administration and its blue state allies seek to destroy the oil and gas industry both through direct regulation prohibiting exploration and the construction of new pipelines and export terminals and through indirect means like the promotion of “ESG investing,” debanking, and financial regulations based on “climate risk.” 

According to its defenders, this approach is the only way to confront climate change and to effect a drastic shift away from all fossil fuels toward intermittent energy sources like wind and solar. As one of us has explained at length elsewhere, however, this is both bad climate policy and bad geopolitical strategy.

It ignores the fact that that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are already plummeting, falling from a peak of over 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2007 to just 5.1 billion in 2019—roughly equivalent to emissions in 1980. And it looks like this trend is continuing. There was a slight uptick in emissions from 2020 to 2021, but this was because the 2020 numbers were lowered because of Covid-19 shutdowns that year. The major driver for the reductions of the last decade and a half has not been the growth of solar and wind, but the replacement of coal power with natural gas, which emits roughly half of the CO2e per kilowatt.

The climate benefits from U.S. natural gas could be even more substantial abroad. Rising Asian economies would benefit from more natural gas to decrease CO2e and clear their hazy skies. China alone contributes nearly 30 percent of the world’s CO2e emissions—more than the U.S., India, and Russia combined—and most of this CO2e can be linked to coal.  If, hypothetically, the United States exported enough natural gas to replace Chinese coal, it could reduce CO2e output by nearly 5 billion tons—more than the United States emitted in 2020.

But regardless of whether they are using coal or U.S. natural gas, China and other developing countries will continue to consume increasing amounts of fossil fuels. We know this because they have said and done so. If America does not supply itself and the world with cheap, low-carbon fuels, someone else will sell something dirtier, and global greenhouse gas emissions will rise. Recall again President Biden’s plea to Russia to increase oil production. The Biden administration’s myopic push towards domestic electrification fails to take these matters into account and in fact has, as its primary consequence, decreased U.S. leverage on climate issues, as well as on everything else.

And a focus on solar and wind to the detriment of all other sources has more acute geopolitical consequences. While the United States is a chief exporter of oil and gas, it is China that controls the critical minerals needed to produce lithium-ion batteries, and the hardware needed for solar and wind energy. A solar plant requires five times more minerals than a natural gas plant and an offshore wind farm nearly thirteen times more. China mines more rare earths, processes more copper, lithium, nickel, and cobalt, and manufactures more polysilicon, battery cells, solar panels, and wind turbine components than any other nation. The U.S., for its part, isn’t a top producer of any of these, and only enters the list as a top importer.

China is aware of its advantage in solar and wind—and weakness in oil and gas. It has pressed this advantage by pushing the world to turn to technologies where it is the leader, building demand through its Belt and Road Initiative, and securing partnerships with its neighbor to the north. Russia, for its part, has secured its own future by bolstering its oil and gas production and securing customers in Europe, with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and through half-trillion dollar pipeline projects with China, the Power of Siberia I and II.

Policies that shift U.S. energy supply away from oil and gas and towards solar and wind eliminate leverage in negotiations with foreign adversaries like Russia and increase Chinese leverage over the U.S. economy, directly threatening our national security and global peace. With the current crisis over Ukraine, and a looming crisis over Taiwan, this is the wrong direction to be heading in.

It is not too late to correct course, however. American policymakers should be working right now to expand U.S. energy production, especially natural gas. As Senator Sullivan has recently argued, this means ending the assault on the fossil fuel industry by woke institutional investors and government regulators. It also means putting an end to fracking bans, approving new pipelines and natural gas export terminals, and authorizing new exploration and leasing of federal land, particularly in Alaska and offshore. Policymakers should also eliminate regulatory barriers for other forms of clean energy, especially low-carbon biofuels and nuclear power.

America needs to be an energy leader if it wants to use its geopolitical influence to protect our allies, defend human rights, sanction bad actors, and—yes—lead global efforts to confront climate change. Unless they change course, the climate idealists in this administration will sacrifice all of these in exchange for small domestic reductions in emissions. Energy growth is not the abandonment of our climate goals; it is a necessary, if not sufficient, way to achieve them.

C. Boyden Gray served as White House counsel to President George H.W. Bush and as Ambassador to the European Union and Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy under President George W. Bush. He is the founding partner of Boyden Gray & Associates, a law and strategy firm in Washington, D.C.

Michael Buschbacher is counsel at Boyden Gray & Associates. Previously, he served in the leadership office of the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice.



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