Call it a nightmare that passes for good news. Recently, the New York Times optimistically headlined a front-page piece by reporters Coral Davenport and Steven Erlanger, "U.S. Hopes Boom in Natural Gas Can Curb Putin." It offered an eerie overview of where the administration of the president who came into office committed to reversing global warming has ended up. If there's "green" left in his presidency, it's evidently the green of envy -- that's what some of his advisers believe countries like Russia will feel on learning that, with our new frackable energy wealth, we are going to be "Saudi America" in a decade or two. Then, the implication is, Washington will really be able to throw its weight around geopolitically.
The Times piece began, "The crisis in Crimea is heralding the rise of a new era of American energy diplomacy as the Obama administration tries to deploy the vast new supply of natural gas in the United States as a weapon to undercut the influence of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, over Ukraine and Europe." Admittedly, given the lack of facilities for exporting those new reserves of natural gas, this isn't going to happen any time soon. Still, filled with hair-raising quotes -- "'In World War II, we were the arsenal of democracy,' said Robert McNally, who was the senior director for international energy issues on the National Security Council during the Bush administration. 'I think we're going to become the arsenal of energy'" -- it describes an approach that's been caught with eerie accuracy by Michael Klare under the label "petro-machismo" in a piece at the Nation magazine.
According to the Times, in 2011 Hillary Clinton, while secretary of state, set up an 85-person bureau to channel "the domestic energy boom into a geopolitical tool to advance American interests around the world." In a sentence that goes right to the heart of the matter in the sixth year of Barack Obama's presidency, the Times article pointed out that "the administration's strategy has attracted unlikely allies, including major oil and gas producers like ExxonMobil and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill..." Amusingly, in the online version, that ill-chosen phrase "unlikely allies" has been expunged and the sentence rewritten (without any indication of a change or correction) -- since, in the Green Revolution president's new version of energy geopolitics, ExxonMobil and its big energy compatriots are now clearly "likely" allies.
There's little new in an imperial power (or wannabe) using its control over energy resources as a source of geopolitical influence. (See: the United States in the 20th century; see: Russia today.) In fact, in normal times on a different planet, the Obama administration's new energy path would pass for a sensible approach to maximizing national strength. As it happens, these are not normal times and we are not on the planet we once thought we knew. As a result, this supposed renaissance of American global energy and power, which will put the production of ever more fossil fuels on the American agenda for decades, is in climate change terms the path to hell. No matter who hails it, as Rebecca Solnit makes vividly clear in her latest essay, "By the Way, Your Home Is on Fire," the new normal, the logical, the obvious, the prudent is these days a formula for, and a guarantee of, a planetary train wreck. And if anyone cares about irony at all a couple of decades from now, this could well be Barack Obama's true legacy.