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Gas Exports Debate Makes Better Domestic Politics Than Geopolitics

Russia's intervention in Ukraine has sparked another debate over the Obama administration's energy policy.

Russia is a major provider of natural gas to Western Europe. That's caused some U.S. policymakers — largely but not exclusively congressional Republicans — to call on the Obama administration to clear the way for increased exports of U.S. natural gas to Europe. That's a two-fer, they argue: It would diminish Russia while helping the domestic energy industry.

Hardly a day goes by, in fact, without Speaker John Boehner's office delivering some version of that message.

The criticism makes sense for Republicans politically. It fits the GOP's case against President Obama, dating back to early in his first term, that his policies have hurt the U.S. energy industry, the economy and job creation. The Keystone XL pipeline and renewable energy debates obviously make that list as well.

But while the position of those calling for more exports makes political sense, it doesn't necessarily make geopolitical sense. Like so many issues involving U.S. energy production, complexity comes with the territory.

Michael Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, actually supports higher exports of U.S. natural gas and notes that policymakers on both sides of the aisle have called for more exports.

But he disagrees that more U.S. gas exports could be an effective lever against Russian president Vladimir Putin anytime soon.

Putin's near-term calculations are unlikely to be changed because it would take too long to ramp up U.S. exports, he said in an interview. Further, Russia's cheaply produced natural gas would make it relatively easy for Putin to cut prices to fend off U.S. efforts to wrest away some of Russia's market share.

Also, it's not like the U.S. has enough surplus gas to liquefy to significantly replace much of what Russia provides, or that the infrastructure for shipping and receiving it exists, Levi said.

Meanwhile, the Energy Department is approving export permits for those gas suppliers with proven customers, he said.

"Department of Energy approvals are not what is standing in the way of U.S. gas coming to the rescue in Europe. It's bad analysis but it's also a false promise on the geopolitical front in an area where we do actually need effective tools," Levi said.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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