From Diplomacy to Gas

Diplomacy could give way to a more direct way to hit Russian President Vladimir Putin in the pocketbook — annexing his European natural gas customers.U.S. and European leaders are looking for ways to prevent further incursions into Ukraine by Russia and ideas have shifted from diplomatic efforts to exporting natural gas.

Europe is highly dependent on Russian natural gas. The United States and Canada have an abundant supply and could replace Russian sources, leaving a big hole in the pockets of Russian business oligarchs and creating a big headache for President Vladimir Putin.

A worried world sees Russian troops amassed at the border of the newly annexed Crimean region, setting up the prospect for a new cold war — or even a very hot war. U.S. officials believe Putin "is not done in the Ukraine."

Sanctions targeting Putin aides and business backers may have some effect as a diplomatic lever, but U.S. and European geo-political strategists think the biggest impact on Putin would come if he saw his natural gas customers walk away.

Converting from Russian to North American natural gas couldn't be done by simply hitting a switch. The capacity to ship natural gas in liquefied form across an ocean doesn't fully exist. It would represent a gigantic economic opportunity for the North American gas industry by opening up what would largely be a captive market in Europe. But it also would ignite home country controversy over the welter of pipelines and LNG export terminals needed to do the job, not to mention the upward pressure on domestic prices that would result.

This kind of power play would test the willingness of Canadians and Americans to sacrifice the global advantage they now have with surplus amounts of natural gas to pursue an international threat without resorting to war. The political crosshatching of who would be on which side of the argument would be fascinating to predict and monitor.

For now, the industrialized nations, including the United States, are trying to isolate Russian leaders at the United Nations, in the so-called G8 and at the bank. There seems to be a sober realization that none of this will cause Putin to stop in his tracks. That's why a plan to move from hot air to natural gas may gain momentum as the best alternative we have to move soldiers, tanks and planes.