The Russians are cunning…
On two consecutive days in March, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that U.S. liquefied natural gas exports quadrupled in 2017 compared with the prior year, and that net U.S. energy imports in 2017 fell to their lowest levels since 1982.
A further bit of homework using EIA data—a statistical trove maintained by the Department of Energy—revealed that total net U.S. electricity generation was slightly greater in 2015 than 10 years earlier, but the resulting carbon dioxide emissions were 21 percent less than from the marginally smaller electric output for 2005.
All this is possible because abundant U.S. natural gas production eases the ongoing transition from coal to gas as electric generation fuel, an abundance relatively newfound and so great as to restrain power prices even as gas demand grows and exports increase. It’s reasonable to think even opponents of all combustion in producing electricity might, on balance, regard these developments as improving upon what’s gone before, while one man would view them as irredeemably disastrous. That man would be Vladimir Putin.
Social Subterfuge Entangled as it is in the acrimony of contemporary American politics, the issue of Russian interference in this country’s domestic affairs is undoubtedly dismissed by some as a partisan distraction. That’s a mistake.
Evidence already accumulating years before the 2016 U.S. election identifies Russian interventions both here and in Europe, focused on energy policy and contrived less to assist one party or another than to aggravate conflicts between them, the apparent motive being to sow chaos within the political institutions of other nations so as to serve the interests of Russia’s energy exporters.
The newest documentation of these activities came in a congressional committee report issued March 1. The Russian government has exploited social media to plant false narratives seeking to undermine U.S. domestic energy production, according to the report from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
Citing “the Kremlin’s energy influence-peddling operation,” it describes Russian entities “deceptively using various social and traditional media platforms” to spur opposition to U.S. domestic energy development and the resulting additions to global energy supplies.
Though the report was authored by majority Republican committee staff, the charges of Russian manipulation have been bipartisan and consistent with each other. Coverage of the committee report by The Hill quoted Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, a Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat, saying “Russia is continuing to extend its digital tentacles into every aspect of American life; it is absolutely chilling and profoundly dangerous to our future.”
The GOP report also referenced “voluminous” findings published in January by Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commissioned by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD).
The Cardin report noted Kremlin attempts to co-opt U.S. and European environmental activists and surreptitious bankrolling of groups protesting energy development. “According to NATO officials,” it says, “Russian intelligence agencies also reportedly provide covert support to European environmental groups to campaign against fracking for natural gas, thereby keeping the EU more dependent on Russian supplies.”
The House committee report noted findings from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) in January 2017 citing “clear evidence that the Kremlin is financing and choreographing anti-fracking propaganda in the United States,” which it said was “likely reflective of the Russian Government’s concern about the impact of fracking and the U.S. natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to [Russian energy companies’] profitability.”
But the pattern was known long before that 2017 DNI report. In a June 2014 speech to a private group, former secretary of state and then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said supporters of U.S. energy development “were up against Russia pushing oligarchs and others to buy media. We were even up against phony environmental groups, and I’m a big environmentalist, but these were funded by the Russians to stand against any effort: ‘Oh that pipeline, that fracking, that whatever, will be a problem for you,’ and a lot of the money supporting that message was coming from Russia.”
What makes this skullduggery worthwhile to Moscow? The House committee report flatly states that American energy development “stands to disrupt the Kremlin’s ability to leverage energy consumption for geopolitical influence.”
“Russia,” the report says, quoting the EIA, “provides roughly 75 percent of the natural gas imported by countries in Central and Eastern Europe while the countries in Southeast Europe ‘receive almost all of their natural gas from Russia.’”
Gazprom, the Russian government-controlled energy giant, “has acknowledged for the first time a threat to its dominant position in European gas markets from an expected influx of liquefied natural gas (LNG) produced in the United States,” the report noted, quoting a January 2017 Reuters story.
Dark humor presumably wasn’t the House committee’s intent in its remarkable understatement that the Kremlin uses other nations’ energy consumption to achieve “geopolitical influence.”
Less than a week before the committee issued its report, British media headlined worries about Russia constraining gas exports to Europe as the U.K. government asserted its sovereignty in reaction to suspected Kremlin-directed assassinations of Putin-regime opponents on British soil. The most recent incident, only days earlier, was the attempted murder in a town west of London of a former Russian agent, his daughter, and a British policeman by exposure to a Soviet-era nerve toxin.
The U.K. doesn’t directly import a lot of Russian gas, but the European Union depends on Russia for about one-third of its supply and part of that is passed on to Britain. British media speculated about price spikes for home heating fuel amid winter demand, were Putin to slow deliveries in retaliation for actions to discourage further mayhem on British territory.
If Moscow expects to act with impunity against its political enemies inside the borders of a major NATO partner, it can’t be surprising when it acts to suppress independent energy production by former Soviet bloc nations.
In November 2014, The New York Times reported on “a mysteriously well-financed and well-organized campaign of protest” to shut down natural gas exploration in Romania by Chevron Corp. The Times said protests had turned the “destitute village” of Pungesti into “a magnet for activists from across the country opposed to hydraulic fracturing” and quoted Romanian officials asserting the turmoil was orchestrated by Gazprom.
The Times reported that elsewhere in Romania, a Gazprom subsidiary began explorations and “unlike the Chevron project” the prior year, “the Gazprom effort has stirred no mass protests.”
Earlier in 2014, London’s The Guardian quoted outgoing NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen telling a British audience the Putin regime was behind efforts to prohibit fracking.
“I have met allies who can report that Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organizations—environmental organizations working against shale gas—to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas,” Rasmussen said.Last year, the Science, Space, and Technology Committee sought help from social media companies to track the origin of postings designed to discredit production and transportation of U.S. domestic energy resources. “Numerous tweets,” the committee report said, encouraged viewers to follow links to petitions seeking to block construction or shut down pipelines including Enbridge Line 5 running from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Ontario.
Russian postings also advocated separately on both sides of contested issues in order to inflame hostility
between Americans with differing viewpoints, the
“Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram were able to identify Russian accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian company based in Saint Petersburg established by the Russian government for the purpose of deceptively using various social and traditional media platforms to advance Russian propaganda,” the report said.
Russia’s adverse interest in U.S. gas development was illustrated in January when a tanker from Siberia docked in Boston, loaded with gas New Englanders needed for winter heating as regional pipeline constraints blocked otherwise abundant domestic supply.
More than Just Media On March 15, the Department of Homeland Security and FBI jointly issued a “technical alert” warning the energy sector and others about Russian government-sponsored hacking activity.
The agencies described “a multi-stage intrusion campaign by Russian government cyber actors who targeted small commercial facilities’ networks where they staged malware, conducted spear phishing, and gained remote access into energy sector networks.” So far, there’s no indication the malefactors penetrated industrial control networks. It could be very bad news if they do.
The inescapable conclusion is that Russian meddling is very real and conducted on a far wider scope than the amateurish dabbling in the contentious 2016 election that dominates media coverage of the issue.
In his new book “Microtrends Squared,” Mark Penn, Bill Clinton’s pollster and a top strategist in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns, dismisses the idea that “the one hundred thousand dollars in ads from Russian accounts [would]tip the election. That’s a pittance compared with the $2.4 billion spent in the 2016 presidential campaigns, most of which would have gone into a limited number of swing states,” he wrote.
There’s useful perspective in remembering that if the Kremlin underhandedly sought to promote the Trump campaign, it also bankrolled anti-Trump demonstrations in U.S. cities. The objective was not to pick the winner. The objective was chaos. Their performance over several years suggests Kremlin strategists fully understand that the more promising path toward the chaos they seek lies not in fiddling with U.S. elections, but in sabotaging America’s production of affordable energy. —Dave Hoopman