To Americans used to thinking of energy in terms of the Middle East, the names of the world's top producers of natural gas might come as a surprise.
No. 1 is the United States. No. 2 is Russia. Together they stand as the giants of gas production. What separates them is that the U.S. consumes its gas, while Russia has become the world's largest exporter — a key reason why President Vladimir Putin felt confident that he could seize Crimea from Ukraine and get away with it. Russia supplies 30% of Europe's gas needs, making it hard for European leaders to muster the resolve to resist.
The good news is that the West can turn the tables on Putin, freeing Europe from its dependency and in the process making Russia pay dearly. That can't be done fast enough to neuter the current crisis, nor will it come cheaply. But if Putin believes his actions will drive Europe toward energy independence, he'll have to think twice. Deprived of its biggest market, Russia's fragile, energy-based economy would erode, along with its power and Putin's stratospheric popularity.
OPPOSING VIEW: Ship know-how, not natural gas
For starters, Europe could produce more of its own natural gas, or find replacements. Poland is sitting on large fields and moving to develop them — a subject of discussion during a visit this week from Vice President Biden. Germany could become much less dependent on Russia by approving hydraulic fracturing (fracking for short) and reversing its foolish decision to abandon nuclear energy.
Second, the United States — now nearly energy independent — could export liquefied natural gas to both Europe and Asia. There are many good reasons for this. The USA has 100 years to 120 years of proven reserves and could significantly boost its economy with the billions of dollars a year that would pour in from a significant export program.
The specter of Putin using natural gas spigots as a way to dominate Ukraine, while keeping other nations at bay, is all the more reason to get going.
The United States could export 12 billion cubic feet a day, equal to about 15% of current production, while hardly breaking a sweat. The Energy Department estimates that this would have only a modest impact on domestic prices, more than offset by the economic gain.
Domestic manufacturers that use large amounts of energy are lobbying to block natural gas exports. And who could blame them? They can get gas at a half to a third what their competitors in other industrial nations pay.
But America should not forgo important economic and foreign policy goals to subsidize them.
So far, the U.S. government has approved only one liquefied gas terminal, in Louisiana. Six have been granted conditional approval, but the pace could be accelerated by streamlining the licensing process.
Currently, the Energy Department decides whether a proposal to export gas is in the public interest. Only nations that have free trade agreements with the USA get an automatic pass. Then, a second body passes judgment on the design of a terminal.
This sluggish process is no way to counter Putin's power play. The faster the U.S. and Europe move to loosen his energy grip, the better.
USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.