Why Flotillas of U.S. LNG or Heat Pumps Can't Rescue Europe from Its Putin-Driven Gas Crisis
Europe has to save itself from its energy emergency, but Congress can address today's political and geopolitical jolts with a smart stripped-down energy and climate bill
Beyond energy sound and fury
Some updates, 04/06, 9 am EDT
I greatly enjoyed watching Denzel Washington's Oscar-nominated performance in "The Tragedy of Macbeth." But I hear echoes of his haunting take on Shakespeare's timeless description of "sound and fury, signifying nothing" every time I see fresh volleys of competing narratives around U.S. energy policy facing Putin's criminal war on Ukraine and the resulting jolt to energy markets and prices.
For instance, in recent weeks we've seen climate campaigner Bill McKibben calling for President Joe Biden to use the Defense Production Act to manufacture and export millions of household heat pumps to Europe to cut its dependency on Russian gas and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin pushing to use the same emergency mechanism to complete a 303-mile natural gas pipeline.
There's scant evidence that either tactic will do much, if anything, to help Europe keep warm this winter or even next, given the scope of European reliance on Russian natural gas and the reality that energy security there, or here, requires vastly more than boosting the supply of either gas or heat pumps. (Read this Euractiv story and particularly this great Twitter thread by journalist-turned-electrician Nathanael Johnson to learn the limits of a heat-pump blitz.)
But it's also clear that boosting near-term supplies of gas and oil and expanding efficiency and clean-energy sources must both play roles in workable U.S. policy, particularly if the hope is to find a legislative path to climate and energy progress in this turbulent and consequential moment for both geopolitical and geophysical sustainability.
Pressure on Europe to end all Russian fuel imports is rising with every new Russian atrocity in Ukraine. The new climate-action assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has further tightened the window for transformative climate action. And gas-pump price shocks still threaten midterm-election prospects for Democrats.
A climate-smart energy bill at last?
The longstanding vision of a trillion-dollar-plus Build Back Better package is history, of course. But there are growing signs of a still-historic half-trillion-dollar spending package emerging and moving forward.
In a Politico story posted Monday, Joshua Siegel reported on the shifting positions of some important climate-focused progressive lawmakers. The headline and deck did a good job summarizing what's brewing, and the reluctance of some to consider a compromise with Manchin, who for a year has been demonized by the left - with some justification, but also counterproductive intensity:
'Swallowing a toad': Progressives warm to Manchin's fossil fuel demands to clinch climate package - Voters' frustration with high energy prices and the likelihood that Democrats will lose control of the House in November have made progressives more open to a deal.
It was particularly notable to see this input from climate-focused Representative Rho Khanna from California's Silicon Valley, reflecting tough pressure on Democrats from spiking gasoline prices:
"If [Manchin] wants some increase for short-term production for the broader package of $500 billion on renewables, I am open to that,” said Rep. Ro Khanna of California, a deputy whip in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “It’s not ideal for the climate, but I am not comfortable with Americans paying 6, 7 bucks for gas.”
A companion Politico piece by Burgess Everett goes deeper and finds no easy path to full support.
I'm setting up some more interviews on this question, including a Sustain What conversation I just scheduled for Friday April 15 at 1 pm Eastern with Representative Sean Casten of Illinois' 6th District, who worked in clean energy before his election to Congress and is a member of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.
In an email Tuesday night, Casten said the findings of the U.N. climate science panel make action more essential than ever:
“The new IPCC report made clear that our window for action is rapidly closing. With a clean energy leader in the White House, science-affirming majorities in Congress, and a mandate from the American people to deliver on climate, we have a moral obligation not to let this window pass us by.
“Today’s IPCC report also made clear that it’s politics - not technological or financial constraint - that is blocking climate action. Every day the U.S. Senate lets politics prevent us from reaching an agreement on the baseline climate investments I fought to see passed by the House is a day that the cost of inaction compounds as American families pay the price and oil-rich autocrats profit. Restarting negotiations with climate action is the only path forward to ensure American energy independence, lower costs for families, and turn this ship around before it’s too late. We are—and have been—living through a code-red moment. We cannot afford to wait a day longer.”
Even though both oil and gas prices and climate trends lie largely outside the influence of presidents, the Biden administration has been working frenziedly to forge a workable path - a task made nearly impossible by a competing array of interests and political factions.
Last month's announcement of a "task force to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels" by Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was a start. The effort focuses both on filling European energy-supply gaps, particularly for gas this winter and next, and cutting fossil fuel demand and related greenhouse gas emissions.
But the plan contains a lot of wishful thinking and steps that, as dirty-energy reporter Amy Westervelt warned, could do more to lock in high gas demand than set the United States and Europe on a course toward geopolitical and geophysical security.
There's merit in Biden's latest moves to boost appliance and fuel economy standards and - in the short run - boost domestic oil supplies to fight what the White House is branding "Putin's Price Hike" (and critics are calling a dodge).
Letting no crisis go unexploited, the oil and gas industry and allies in Congress and the commentariat have been in sustained fossil-boosting overdrive, using the European energy crisis to argue for expanding the capacity to liquefy and ship U.S.-produced gas across the Atlantic to help Europe wean itself off Putin's vast supply.
The vision is of some kind of flag-waving LNG-carrier equivalent of the flotillas of U.S.-built World War II Liberty ships (on which my dad served as an engine oiler as that war came to an end).
But Europe's "winter" heating season typically begins in October, which is a mere six months away. There's essentially very little the U.S. can do to help Europe cut its dependence on Russia by then beyond shifting some LNG exports from other clients elsewhere to Europe, as the Rhodium Group concluded in a recent report on U.S. options for reducing dependence on Russian energy.
Insert | A recent comprehensive Bloomberg story on Europe's crash effort to wean itself off Russian fuel concluded that old-fashioned steps like European homeowners lowering thermostats would have many times greater impact on gas use than a mass installation of heat pumps even if the skilled workforce were there to both do the boiler-to-pump swap and also the full-house insulation installation that's required to make such heating systems work effectively:
"Lowering European thermostats by 1° Celsius (about 2° Fahrenheit) would cut demand for Russian gas by 7% this year, according to the IEA. Speeding up the replacement of gas boilers with heat pumps, which operate on electricity and are three times more efficient, could further cut that gas demand by 2% if combined with policies to rapidly increase the number of homes that get upgraded insulation...."
Javier Blas's devastating new Bloomberg column on Europe's resulting bind, which has billions flowing to the Kremlin each week. As he tweeted, "The EU is effectively funding Russia's war to the tune of $1 billion a day. That's immoral, hypocritical and unsustainable - both with oil and natural gas." He added, "Europe is buying more Russian gas via Ukraine than at any point since the war started."
Insert | On Twitter on Wednesday, Nathanael Johnson, the former Grist writer who's now an electrician, said this about heat pumps and energy futures, and I embrace this thought fully:
"I’m all for using Putin’s invasion to spur heat pump installation (etc). AND If we are realistic about the timelines and the barriers and include those in the policy it could prevent the pendulum from swinging back in the wrong direction."
William S. Becker, a former Department of Energy regional director who is the executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, wrote a compelling column in The Hill today centering on this call to Manchin:
"[O]ur record gasoline prices are a crisis we can’t afford to waste. We should know by now that more oil production only sets us up for more oil crises. The path to energy independence leads in only one direction, to renewable, domestic, zero-carbon fuels."
Last week, I reached out for analysis of legislative options to Paul Bledsoe, who's a strategic adviser at the Public Policy Institute and has been deep in Democratic strategy on energy and climate in Washington for a couple of decades, including time spent in the Clinton administration and on the Senate Finance Committee staff.
I posted our discussion as an audio podcast and you can watch here:
For those who prefer to read, click here for the transcript. Here are a couple of key points from Bledsoe. I asked him whether it's possible for climate progressives to find common ground with Joe Manchin after spending months demonizing him:
What Manchin wants
"Manchin's focus is primarily on how to take fossil fuel industries - coal, natural gas and oil - and transition the workers and the investment in a way that benefits those regions that are fossil-fuel-production intensive. And so what he has emphasized is a investment tax credit for certain kinds of investment that would do things like carbon capture and storage, but also move those industries and those specific workers toward cleaner energy - things like hydrogen power for natural gas or so-called blue or green hydrogen that would be used through a combination of natural gas produced through combination of natural gas and renewable energy. So that is his focus, and I think the president and other Democrats have got to work very closely with Manchin to make sure he gets those provisions that can help these regions that are dependent and will remain dependent for some time on fossil fuel production - not just investments to the coasts. If this is seen as a bill that just benefits the East and West Coast and a few other places in the country, but not, for example, the swing states of the Midwest, it's going to be a failure. And so this is the political puzzle that the White House has got to solve."
Why is this doable now?
"What what has changed that is very different from not just 30 years ago, but even five or 10 years ago, is that these technologies are now cheaper and more efficient. It wasn't true 10 years ago. But now it is. So now there's absolutely no reason not to make the energy transition. The problem now is more cultural than it is really economic. And so we really do need to to reach moderates in Congress, in places like the Midwest and Appalachia and explain to them how this is going to benefit their constituents in an economic and consumer manner. And I think this case is so strong for that that I actually believe we are going to get a bill.
"I think we're going to get a standalone bill focused on the $325-billion clean-energy tax incentive policy that passed the Senate Finance Committee. There will be some changes to that bill, but the overall bill will stay the same. I think the bill will also have deficit reduction. It'll have some money for climate resilience. It'll have additional money for, I think, a fossil-fuel industry transition. But I think that's the package and I think we are going to get it this year. I think what's changed is two things: Russia's invasion of Ukraine has increased energy security pressure and rationale for such a bill because clean energy will help us, as the president keeps saying in terms of our long-term geopolitical position on energy. But also high inflation has increased an emphasis on getting new, lower-priced electricity supply and transportation supply into the economy. So those new elements - security and inflation - I think, are increasing the chances we get a bill this year."
Republicans at risk?
"The big 800-pound elephant, all puns intended, is how the entirety of the Republican Party can be against something like electric vehicle tax incentives. Every country in the world is incentivizing electric vehicles. The Chinese are putting massive amounts of money at every point in the system - production, consumer, you name it - for electric vehicles. That's why they have 75 percent of the global market now.
"To cede this technology of the future to our competitors is crazy economic policy. And yet it's precisely what the Republicans are doing. I really want Democrats to nationalize this midterm election around these issues. Average voters can understand that Republicans are in the pocket of oil companies and electric vehicles are going to be cheaper and better. Average voters can get that. That's not rocket science, and the Republicans are in an impossible-to-defend position in any rational manner. And so when you're looking at building a long-term coalition, you've got to force the Republicans to take a more reasonable position on these issues."
There's more from Bledsoe on the importance of stopping methane leaks from American gas production and plans by the country's biggest LNG exporter, Cheniere, to start reporting the greenhouse gas footprint of its gas shipments. So click and listen.
Of course, embracing a legislative compromise on energy and climate will require a lot of my climate-hawk friends to “develop a healthier emotional relationship with Joe Manchin,” as Matty Yglesias proposed a week ago.
I’m not sure that’s possible, but here's hoping.
Energy retrofits and resources
It took from 1996 until this year for our first home, built in 1932, to make the transition from no insulation and double basement oil tanks to Mitsubishi heat pumps. We did what we could afford, spending thousands on insulation, new windows and more. But the couple we sold it to in 2014 finally took it over the finish line. Retrofits are tough. I'll be writing more soon on those realities, both here and in Europe.
New York State Energy Research & Development Authority Retrofit NY program
Artwork from the new Rewiring America campaign for patriotic energy transformation; click for their guide to home electrification
Related reading, watching, listening
All Hail American Unity Over Banning Russian Oil - Until Summer Driving Season and Midterm Politics - my recent post on the brief moment of unity when Biden barred Russian oil imports
The challenge of retrofitting millions of aging homes to battle global warming - an excellent PBS News segment
The Household Infrastructure Challenge - Retrofitting Millions of American Homes to Save Energy, Money and CO₂ - my recent post exploring other facets of energy remakes
David Roberts' Volts podcasts and posts on paths to a full-scale energy makeover
Accelerating Cold Climate Heat Pump Technology and Adoption in the Midwest - a Department of Energy event with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm
That epic Twitter thread on the limits of heat pumps by former Grist journalist Nate Johnson
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During a recent virtual town hall on energy retrofits with Miro Weinberger, the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, the physicist and "electrify everything" evangelist Saul Griffith made a great point about beating fossil fuel fans through a shift in culture: