The Energy Noose

By Jack Atherton - email/bio

Lenin said, "Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them." As always, Lenin was wrong. But now, seventeen years after the collapse of his Soviet Union, Russia's resurgent authoritarian rulers are selling us the rope we're using to hang ourselves.

That noose is woven from natural gas and oil. Apart from vodka, those are Russia's only major exports, accounting for almost a third of its gross domestic product. In 1991 Russia lost its evil empire. Now it's using the revenue and influence afforded by massive energy reserves to emasculate Western Europe. And now, with the invasion of Georgia, Russia may be recapturing all it lost in the east. Russia is also extending its influence in our own hemisphere: besides Cuba, Hugo Chavez's oil-rich Venezuela is a fawning Russian ally. Mexico has also discussed joint oil policy with Moscow. And although it is not an OPEC member, Russia - and China, which is securing oil contracts around the world - applaud the anti-Americanism of the founders of that cartel, including Venezuela, Iran and our alleged ally, Saudi Arabia.

George W. Bush once said he looked into the eye of Russia's then president and now prime minister Vladimir Putin and saw a man with whom he could do business. And so he has. We are now hat-in-hand customers of Russia. We buy comparatively little oil and gas directly from Russia, but when it comes to energy - and energy prices - we're captives of a world market. And in that market Russia is the biggest exporter of natural gas and the second biggest exporter of oil, both of which fueled growth of its GDP last year of 8.1%.

That growth, along with Russia's reclaimed pride, has reconciled most of its people to a continuing loss of freedom - their own and the freedom of neighboring countries like Georgia and, perhaps next, Ukraine.

Georgia asked to join NATO in order to make Moscow think twice about invading. But too many NATO members, beholden to Russia for oil (and remembering Saddam's oil for food scandal, very likely bribes) refused Georgia's application. The United States is in Georgia's debt, not only for sending 2,000 troops to fight with us in Iraq, but also for standing - in defiance of Moscow -- as a beacon of free-market democracy. Yet we hesitated to press NATO harder, mindful of our allies' energy dependence - and our own.

Today America is twice as dependent on foreign oil as we were during the first oil shock of 1973. Since then, federal environmental and safety regulations have made it ever more burdensome and expensive to extract domestic oil, natural gas, coal or nuclear power. Opponents of those regulations claim they've been made moot by new technologies; others disagree.

Barack Obama and John McCain are offering starkly different energy policies. Obama is pushing renewable and alternative fuels along with increased conservation and windfall profits taxes on U.S. oil companies. While McCain opposes those taxes he otherwise agrees with Obama - but would also promote domestic off-shore drilling, shale, clean coal, natural gas and nuclear plants. Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are just as divided.

Domestic energy may be the key issue in November because it affects not just our economy but also our security, and the world's.