WASHINGTON -- As much of the world focuses on Ukraine's political turmoil and Russia's military response, those at the top of the K Street influence tower see an opportunity to shape oil and gas legislation now moving through Congress with alarming speed.
Led by the powerhouse lobbying of the American Petroleum Institute, a coalition of Fortune 500 energy companies are using the Ukraine crisis to spur Congress to approve a key policy goal: Easing regulations on the export of U.S. natural gas.
Despite a decade-long boom in U.S. natural gas production, very little of America's vast gas reserves are exported.. That's because strict regulations on the transfer and storage of gas have made it impossible to profitably ship out of the U.S.
Oil and gas companies have paid Washington lobbyists millions in recent years to challenge the strict export rules -- to no avail, until now.
As Russian troops occupy Crimea and more mass on Ukraine's border, President Barack Obama and other Western leaders seek ways to apply diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia. Their goals are to support Ukraine's shaky new pro-European government in Kiev, and to weaken Russia's grip on its former Soviet satellite.
Natural gas is key to both objectives. Russia's natural gas pipelines run straight through Ukraine. These pipelines provide gas to meet Ukraine's energy needs, while also supplying Washington's European allies. Over the past five years, however, the price and availability of Russian gas in Ukraine has become increasingly politicized. Russia has cut off the flow of gas to Ukraine twice in the past 10 years.
In Washington, Russian saber-rattling lends urgency to the oil and gas industry deregulation bills long pressed by lobbyists. This time, the bills have a bigger, eager audience on Capitol Hill. For lawmakers, easing restrictions on natural gas exports is a good way to look tough on Russia, and at the same time to tout jobs for the U.S. energy sector.
No fewer than six bills have been introduced in Congress in the past two weeks aimed at speeding permits required to export liquefied natural gas, or LNG.
The lead legislation in the Republican-controlled House was handed to Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). Gardner recently announced a challenge to freshman Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) that cleared the Republican primary field in the Senate contest. By handing Gardner the export bill, Republicans aim to give the congressman a winning issue of concern to his home state and to burnish his international credentials. Udall introduced a similar bill the same day.
"We certainly like the fact that the Ukraine has essentially elevated the debate over the LNG exports," said Marty Durbin, CEO of America's Natural Gas Alliance, the biggest U.S. trade group of independent gas companies.
At first glance, all six bills look like emergency relief measures, crafted to help balance Russian President Vladimir Putin's power over Ukraine. But that's not what's going to happen.
"Expediting liquefied natural gas exports from the U.S. to weaken Russia's standing is a red herring," Athan Manuel, senior director for the Sierra Club, an environmental group opposed to gas exports, told The Huffington Post in an email. "As Energy Secretary [Ernest] Moniz said last Wednesday, the United States doesn't have the physical capacity to export LNG, nor can we determine where LNG exports go. Exporting LNG is no quick fix to this international crisis."
If you listened to members of Congress in the last week, you'd be forgiven for thinking that American gas exports would be enough to save Ukraine. They're not. They wouldn't even leave American ports until 2015, long after Ukraine's revolution government either will have established itself or failed.
Industry leaders and energy experts concede that American LNG exports are not ready to flow to Ukraine or its European allies. There are no operational LNG export sites in the continental United States that can ship to non-free trade countries, although a few companies have been cleared to begin the permitting process, which can take up to five years.
Nonetheless, K Street is playing the crisis card -- whether it helps the Ukrainians, or not.
Current regulations require a special permitting process for gas exports to countries that don't have free trade agreements with the U.S. The legislation in Congress would speed the process of exporting gas to NATO allies and to other countries, including Japan and India, by waiving the permitting process and expediting permits for 24 LNG export sites in the U.S. awaiting Department of Energy approval to ship gas to those countries.
Passage of the legislation would "send a very strong signal," according to Durbin, that the U.S. would be "able to help our allies and minimize the ability of any country out there to abuse energy as a weapon."
"Our allies in Europe are eager for a reliable partner to enter the marketplace as a stable, secure source of natural gas, and American industry is ready to make that happen," Erik Milito, API's director of upstream and industry operations, said in a statement.
To help push the legislation, the oil and gas industry employs more than 760 federally registered lobbyists and has distributed more than $150 million in campaign contributions since 2007, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
API and ANGA have spent even more on advertising aimed at voters to soften their views of hydraulic fracturing, energy regulations and other industry priorities. The two groups combined spent $245 million on advertising promoting oil and gas from 2011 to 2012, often targeted in states with important elections. API has already run ads using the names of seven vulnerable Senate Democrats ahead of the 2014 election.
The rush to weaken regulation of gas exporters in the name of helping Ukraine is not without opposition. Environmental groups have been joined by chemical manufacturers, the steel industry and power producers. Electric utilities and chemical makers fear increased gas exports will lead to higher domestic gas prices, cutting into profits.
Dow Chemical, the de facto leader of the export opposition, launched the anti-gas export group America's Energy Advantage with other major manufacturers. The group was founded after Dow quit the National Association of Manufacturers to protest NAM's endorsement of a Department of Energy study finding exports have little effect on domestic gas prices.
America's Energy Advantage has called the push to speed gas exports in light of the Ukraine crisis to be "a false hope."
Dow's vocal opposition to easier exports is not shared by the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry's trade association, which counts Dow as a member. Dow gave more than $1.3 million to ACC in 2012. ACC states that its membership lacks a "clear consensus" on gas exports to non-free trade countries, so the group supports "further study."
Dow argues that an increase in gas exports would coincide with new pollution regulations for coal-fired power plants. Switching power plants from coal to natural gas while boosting exports of gas would increase the domestic cost of natural gas, according to the chemical industry.
Domestic gas prices have fallen rapidly as drilling and production have expanded in recent years with new technology, including fracking. According to a study last year by the pro-export Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, natural gas prices have declined 55 percent since 2005, which experts largely attribute to the increase in supply.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will consider Ukrainian aid legislation on Wednesday and at least one senator has offered an amendment to ease gas export regulations.
"It's going to take through this week and maybe over the break that they have to kind of settle out where they want to go here," ANGA's Durbin said about Congress. "Our hope and where we're going to engage is we can see some proposal that has some likelihood of moving through that will expedite the [export] process."
03/25/2014 6:18 PM EDT
Senate To Vote Thursday On Ukraine Aid
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) set up a final vote Thursday on a bill that would provide Ukraine with up to $1 billion in loan guarantees and impose targeted sanctions against Russian officials.
Reid made the announcement Tuesday after dropping a controversial provision from the Senate bill that would have boosted the U.S. quota at the International Monetary Fund. Republicans in both chambers of Congress opposed the IMF reforms, which were specifically requested by the White House to increase Ukraine's borrowing capabilities at the institution.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier Tuesday that Republicans would still want to vote on a number of amendments, but the IMF language was the major sticking point. Without it, the Ukraine aid package is expected to pass both the Senate and the House without much drama or delay.
03/25/2014 5:24 PM EDT
Moldovan Separatists Claim They Downed Ukrainian Drone
Authorities in a pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova claim to have brought down a Ukrainian drone on a reconnaissance mission.
NovostiPMR, the news agency of Trans-Dniester says Tuesday that the region's intelligence agency downed the drone on March 23.
The region broke away from Moldova in 1990. There are 1,500 Russian troops stationed there guarding hundreds of tons of weapons.
According to the agency, the drone was "launched from Ukrainian territory by people close to the Ukrainian Security Service and the Defense Ministry."
It said the plane illegally crossed into Trans-Dniester violating its air space. It added that the authorities in the region reserved the right to use "all available methods" to defend the territory which is not internationally recognized but is supported by Russia.
03/25/2014 4:18 PM EDT
Russians Take Over Last Ukrainian Ship In Crimea
Russian forces appeared to be attempting to take over the last military ship controlled by Ukraine in Crimea on Tuesday after a Ukrainian military spokesman reported explosions in its vicinity and helicopters approaching the vessel.
Russian forces armed with stun grenades and automatic weapons have seized ships and military bases from the last remaining Ukrainian troops in Crimea in recent days as part of Russia's largely bloodless annexation of the region.
Kiev, which calls Russia's annexation of Crimea illegal, ordered its remaining forces to withdraw for their own safety on Monday, but not all troops have yet left the Black Sea peninsula and some ships have been prevented from leaving.
"Around 1900 (1600 GMT) there were several explosions from the direction of the minesweeper Cherkasy in the Donuzlav bay," Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov told Reuters.
"Some Mi-35 helicopter gunships were observed hovering in the area. Speedboats and a tug were seen approaching Cherkasy," he said.
On Monday Cherkasy attempted without success to break to the open sea through a blockade at the entrance to the inlet. The Russian navy blocked the route earlier this month by scuttling three hulks in the channel.
Seleznyov said he was unable to confirm whether Russian troops had boarded the ship.
03/25/2014 3:02 PM EDT
Russian Military Holds Exercises In Moldova
Russia's military staged training exercises on Tuesday in Transdniestria, a breakaway sliver of Moldova that is a focus of tension following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.
NATO's top military commander said on Sunday he was worried that Russia might have its eye on Transdniestria, a largely Russian-speaking region that borders western Ukraine, after seizing Crimea, which has a narrow ethnic Russian majority.
The Interfax news agency quoted a spokesman for Russia's Western Military District, Colonel Oleg Kochetkov, as saying that Russian forces stationed in Transdniestria had "conducted an anti-terrorism drill and practiced operations to rebuff an attack on their military base".
Transdniestria, with a population of half a million, has run its own affairs since 1992 after fighting a brief war against the Moldovan government over fears that it might join Romania after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia has a permanent garrison of peacekeepers there.
03/25/2014 1:02 PM EDT
No, Ukraine Will Not Have Nukes: Ministry Of Foreign Affairs
Ukraine's Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed, in something of a Shermanesque statement, that the country will not develop nuclear weapons, one day after the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs seized on a proposal by some Ukrainian MPs to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
"Ukraine has not planned, is not planning and is not going to plan to resume its nuclear status," a spokesman for the agency said at a press briefing.
Earlier this month, several opposition MPs introduced a draft bill to withdraw Ukraine from the NPT. Russia's Foreign Ministry seized on it, saying "the dysfunctional new Kiev authorities may pose a threat to the security of Ukrainian nuclear sites under the current Ukrainian circumstances," in a statement.
"We do not trust attempts of the Ukrainian delegate to dissociate from this position. The NPT is in serious danger."
Ukraine, which suddenly became the world's third-largest nuclear state after the collapse of the Soviet Union, gave its nuclear arsenal back to Russia for disposal under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in exchange for security assurances from Russia that it would respect Ukraine's territorial integrity.
03/25/2014 12:34 PM EDT
Five Scenarios For Russia's Relations With China, Moldova And Nato
The world's industrialized nations have turned their back on Russia, following Moscow's annexation of Crimea.
Though the G8 cannot expel its members, countries can refuse a member permission to attend, effectively expelling them.
With jitters in the east of Europe about further Russian incursion, and wariness in China, the state of world diplomacy could look very different by 2015.
HuffPost UK has asked military and international relations experts on five scenarios that could occur now Russia looks increasingly isolated, and as the West looks impotent.
Read here what they predict.
03/25/2014 12:27 PM EDT
Senate Democrats Consider Dropping IMF Provision
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may drop a controversial reform to the U.S. share at the International Monetary Fund from the Ukraine aid package, according to Senate leadership aides.
The provision was requested by President Barack Obama and Ukrainian leaders, but faces widespread opposition from Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that his members would not support the aid bill unless the IMF language was dropped.
A Senate leadership aide said removing the provision is now "under consideration in order to move the bill." In exchange, Republicans would drop their demand to delay a Treasury Department rule that cracks down on the political activities of nonprofits, known as 501(c)(4)s.
The House of Representatives passed its own legislation providing aid to Ukraine earlier this month without the IMF reforms, and planned to move on a sanctions bill that also left the issue untouched. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said boosting U.S. funds at the IMF has "nothing to do with Ukraine," and his aides indicated they would not have enough votes to move the Senate bill through the lower chamber in its current form.
The Obama administration and Senate Democrats have been making the case that ratifying the IMF reforms, which were agreed upon in 2010, is critical to Ukraine's borrowing capabilities in a time of crisis. Still, some House Democrats acknowledged that the White House was complicating the process by renewing debate over a contentious issue when providing aid expeditiously is of the utmost importance.
03/25/2014 11:46 AM EDT
Obama Dismisses Romney's 'Geopolitical Foe' Comment
President Barack Obama dismissed the notion that former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney was correct in saying that Russia was "our number one geopolitical foe" Tuesday, in a response to a question from Jonathan Karl of ABC News. He said that Russia was merely a "regional power" that was acting out of "weakness."
"Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength, but out of weakness. Ukraine has been a country in which Russia had enormous influence for decades, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and we have considerable influence on our neighbors," he said. "We generally don't need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them."
03/25/2014 11:26 AM EDT
Obama Says He's Not Interested In Putin's Motivation
At a press conference in Europe, U.S. President Barack Obama sidestepped a question on whether he "misread" Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he wasn't so interested in his motivations.
"With respect to President Putin's motivation, I think there has been a lot of speculation. I am less interested in motivation and more interested in the facts and the principles that not only the United States but the entire international community are looking to uphold."
He added that the United States is "concerned" about further encroachment by Russia into Ukraine.
03/25/2014 10:39 AM EDT
Will Russia Annex Moldova Next?