The Russian invasion of Ukraine has already profoundly altered the world, with significant implications for the globe’s ability to transition to clean energy and stave off climate change. While countries scramble to meet their energy needs without relying on Russian gas, the United States has been dealt a critical choice: double down on fossil fuel production to make up for global supply gaps, or accelerate the transition to clean energy to wane dependence on all fossil fuels. Thus far, President Biden has not clearly chosen one of these options: he has taken steps to bolster immediate fossil fuel use, while signaling longer term investments in clean energy technologies. As a result, the impact of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine on the United States’ climate goals is highly complex and not yet certain.
Compared to many countries in Europe, the United States does not rely heavily on Russian oil and gas: Russia accounts for roughly two percent of U.S. oil supply. Global sanctions on Russia have impacted the United States’ energy system, though, as the federal government takes steps to increase fossil exports to ease supply shortages. In late March, President Biden committed to release one million gallons of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve per day for six months, while also pledging to export additional liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the European Union in 2022 (predominantly by rerouting existing cargo). As a result of the newfound appreciation for American LNG, multiple U.S. companies have signaled their willingness to ramp up natural gas production and export. This ramping up could take years to realize and result in new fossil infrastructure built or long-term contracts signed, which would lock in emissions for the foreseeable future. While climate advocates have decried these actions as extending the life of fossil fuels, many conservatives have called for the administration to do more, by reversing some of President Biden’s early climate policies that stifled fossil fuel production, and by expanding the federal oil and gas program.
The United States’ efforts to lower dependence on Russian oil and gas also include efforts to accelerate a clean energy transition, albeit modestly. On March 31, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to scale the responsible mining and processing of critical minerals for large-capacity batteries, which can be used for electric vehicles, power storage, and other uses. This action is crucial to the world’s energy transition, since Russia is a large producer of minerals required for clean energy technologies and since the United States has limited mineral processing capacity domestically. Several lawmakers and climate advocateshave urged the president to go further by using the Defense Production Act to bolster domestic heat pump manufacturing (thus reducing the need for residential gas use), but he has yet to take this action. The Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, have taken steps to support the U.S. biofuel industry, with the hopes that biofuel investments could both lower prices at the pump and reduce overall dependence on fossil gas. (Biofuels, though, have their own impacts that need to be reckoned with, including greenhouse gas emissions and impacts on the food supply.)
Perhaps the greatest climate challenge that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presents for the United States is how American sentiment about the invasion, and the government’s handling of it, influences their voting decisions. With midterm elections for governors, senators, and representatives upcoming in late 2022, the invasion is sure to be top of mind for many voters. An NBC poll released March 27, for instance, found that a large majority of Americans worry about increasing gas prices due to the war and the president’s handling of the economy, leading to President Biden’s lowest approval rating of his presidency. Headwinds are also strong for Democrats in Congress, who are vying to keep a razor-thin majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The invasion, and its ripple effects throughout the United States, thus may severely hamper the ability of progressive, pro-climate candidates to be elected. Even if Democrats do retain majorities in both houses, divisiveness spurred by the invasion may dampen Congress’s chances of passing meaningful climate legislation next session. With so much up in the air, Russia’s war in Ukraine is sure to profoundly alter environmental, economic, and political realities in the United States for many months to come.
This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard United States Country Manager Christina Cilento