Officials from the Department of Energy started formally referring to natural gas as ‘freedom gas’ last week, a recent entry in America’s time-honored tradition of adding the word ‘freedom’ in front of regular nouns to make them sound like they’re being advertised in a Breitbart.com banner ad. Calling natural gas freedom gas may provoke some seemingly-justified eye-rolling, but the phrase so perfectly encapsulates the broad strokes of the global natural gas market that it might actually be worth embracing.
I’m no Stan for the Trump administration (in fact, Rick Perry is making a play to be the most competent member of the Cabinet), but I’m unironically adding freedom gas to my vocabulary. Let me explain.
The European Union imports a staggering amount of natural gas for critical tasks like space heating and electricity generation, and most of those imports come from Russia (who produces the second-most natural gas the world). Traditionally, gas travels via pipeline (overland or underground) from extraction operations to the end user. The United States and Canada, the number one and number five producers, respectively, just don’t have the pipeline infrastructure to pump gas to the UK, Germany, and France.
Pipeline infrastructure (and the constant flow of natural gas through it) gives Russia considerable power over the European Union in this regard, and Russia has flexed this leverage on multiple occasions. For instance, a 2005 trade dispute between Russia and Ukraine triggered a three-day shutoff of gas pipelines moving through the Ukraine beginning January 1, 2006, cutting off roughly 60% of Europe’s natural gas supply. The results were predictably dire (albeit short-lived) for the Europeans dependent on gas to heat their homes in the dead of winter. It happened again in 2009.
Russian-Ukrainian cooperation on natural gas has always been shaky, and that was before the Russians annexed Crimea (which triggered yet another supply cutoff in 2014). Ukraine isn’t the only path for natural gas to move westwards, of course; there are pipelines between Russia and Germany that bypass Ukraine altogether. But it doesn’t change the fact that any wintertime conflict between the EU and Russia (or Russia and former members of the Eastern Bloc) could immediately escalate into Russia cutting off gas to Europe. And if recent trends are any indication, Europe is becoming more dependent on Russian gas, not less.
And elsewhere in the world, US allies like Japan and South Korea depend on natural gas imports from Russia, Iran (#3), Qatar (#4), and Saudi Arabia (#8). With most of the Japanese nuclear fleet in indefinite shutdown since the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns (although this trend is reversing somewhat) and a healthy portion of the South Korean electrical grid dependent on natural gas, the region is dependent on natural gas despite producing only a tiny amount domestically. It’s worth noting that most of the natural gas imports to this region arrive via tanker rather than via pipeline (more on that below).
It’s easy to connect the next few dots. When the United States looks to build a coalition to push back against Iran’s nuclear program or the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen or Russian aggression in former Soviet states (the list goes on), energy security may play some role in restraining the responses from countries who are dependent on these countries to fuel their economy with fossil fuels.
And suddenly, with loud chanting of “drill, baby, drill,” the United States barrels into the fray like a professional wrestler brandishing a steel chair, ready to save the day with freedom gas.
A combination of factors began to change the natural gas landscape in the late 2000s and early 2010s. First and most obvious, directional drilling increased the effectiveness of hydraulic fracturing, more popularly known as fracking, triggering a massive shale gas boom that catapulted US oil and gas production to new heights. But second, and much more quietly, advances in the compression process necessary to store and transport natural gas as liquified natural gas (LNG) helped drive a boom in the construction of LNG-carrying tanker ships to transport gas across great distances without the need for long pipelines. The transportation process adds cost and complexity to the operation, but America seems poised to compete with Russia and the Gulf States on the global stage.
The legal and physical infrastructure to export gas from the United States to the rest of the world is still a work in progress and current export capacity isn’t close to the hypothesized ideal, but the United States has another golden opportunity to supplant Russian influence and shape global politics via exports by breaking the linkage between the current hegemony of gas producers and gas consumers.
Putting freedom gas aside for a second, there are many reasonable objections to increased natural gas exports. Every molecule of carbon pumped up from the subsurface pushes the world one iota further towards unmanageable climate change (even if natural gas is potentially less impactful than burning coal), and fracking operations as a whole (from drilling to the eventual disposal of wastewater via injection) pose complex environmental issues which must be weighed against the economic benefits. These are serious issues that will have lasting effects, even if the current administration’s policy is to bury its head in the sand on climate change.
But if the world continues to demand gas and the United States can export soft power and greater diplomatic cooperation along with methane, “molecules of freedom” will be a mainstay of American energy policy for years to come.
Groan as loud as you want…freedom gas is here to stay.
Jeff Geringer is a nuclear engineer and energy policy enthusiast in the Great Plains.