During his trip to Europe, President Trump criticized Germany, Europe’s most populous democracy and pivotal NATO ally as being “totally controlled by Russia.” And, if that wasn’t clear enough, he reiterated this by saying, “Germany, as far I’m concerned, is captive to Russia … So we’re supposed to protect Germany, but they’re getting their energy from Russia.”
For good measure, Trump noted that Germany is not meeting its obligations under the NATO defense alliance to spend 2 percent of GDP on their military — Berlin spends a paltry 1.2 percent of their economy on defense. Other than the U.S., only four of other 28 NATO members meet the threshold.
Trump’s remarks made a lot of people in Europe and America uncomfortable. His remarks are also true.
Germany has had a fraught relationship with Russian oil and gas. When the industrialized world shifted from coal to oil for transportation 100 years ago, Germany found itself without appreciable oil reserves. Germany’s World War II military and its operations were shaped by this lack of oil, with the vaunted blitzkrieg largely dependent on horse transportation. Germany’s first crushing defeat, at Stalingrad in early 1943, was a direct result of Hitler’s failed attempt to seize the Russian oilfields in the Caucasus.
German environmental policies over the past 20 years have led to the shedding of both coal and nuclear generating stations, as President Trump reminded German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Wind power and natural gas have filled the void — with 40 percent of the natural gas burned in Germany coming from Russia.
Shockingly, to an American public fed a steady diet about alleged collusion between Putin’s Russia and the Trump campaign, the German political scene features more than collusion — it has open collaboration. Gerhard Schroeder, for seven years the chancellor of Germany until his defeat at the hands of Angela Merkel in 2005, counts himself a friend of Vladimir Putin.
Schroeder was on the board of Gazprom, Russia’s giant state-owned natural gas company that provided Europe with some 40 percent of its gas in 2017 — until he was named chairman of the board of directors of Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company, also owned by the Russian government.
Schroeder, who once called Putin a “flawless democrat,” remains a formidable force in German politics. The most prominent member of the Social Democratic Party, Merkel’s junior coalition partner, Schroeder attacked Trump last year in a speech to party members, saying, “What happens in the U.S. needs to be openly and harshly criticized.” Schroeder labeled America’s political influence as “monstrous,” called for better relations with Russia, and told Germany to ignore President Trump’s call to meet its 2 percent defense spending commitment to NATO. Schroeder, who has earned millions by serving on the boards of two state-owned Russian energy companies, didn’t mention Ukraine, Crimea, or Russian human rights abuses in his speech. He was roundly applauded by party members.
Meanwhile, Gazprom is working to double its gas exports to Germany and Western Europe next year through an expansion of the Nord Stream gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea.
But, as with Soviet efforts to expand oil exports to Europe during the Cold War, the Nord Stream expansion has been hit with U.S. economic sanctions.
After President Ronald Reagan imposed an embargo on the Soviet oil pipeline to Europe in 1981, the French foreign minister declared “the end of the Atlantic Alliance.” Current U.S. efforts to wean NATO partners off their dependence on Russian energy have been met with similar European pushback.
But an alternative is rapidly developing that will give Europe options that will greatly diminish the Russian chokehold on Europe’s energy needs: American natural gas. Liquefied natural gas exports from America quadrupled last year and are expected to expand another five-fold next year as the U.S. is on track to produce some 43 trillion cubic feet of natural gas by 2050 — some 2.5 times the production of Russia’s Gazprom.
The U.S. is on pace to become the world’s third-largest liquefied natural gas exporter by 2020, behind only Australia and Qatar, with 3.5 trillion cubic feet per year expected to go abroad that year.
With so much money and power at stake, however, other nations have a keen interest in stopping American energy production. In 2012, the anti-fracking film "Promised Land," staring Matt Damon, was financed by the oil and gas-exporting families that rule the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, following a script that they’ve followed since the Russian revolution in 1917, Moscow has worked to undermine the West by secretly financing anti-fracking environmentalist groups around the planet. Russia has even set up an offshore shell company in Bermuda to wire money to U.S. environmental nonprofits such as the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters Education Fund to whip up anti-fracking activism.
And, while some states such as California and New York have moved to “keep it in the ground,” Texas and other states with large natural gas reserves have encouraged the use of safe and improved oil and gas recovery technology to boost production.
America’s growing energy dominance isn’t just good for Americans — it will also help our European allies stiffen their resolve in the face of mounting Russian pressure.
This commentary was originally featured in the Washington Examiner on July 13, 2018.