Americans should pay special attention to this week’s crisis between Russia and the Ukraine involving natural gas. It foreshadows what could happen here if we continue to cede control of our national energy policy to environmentalists.

Last year’s election of the outspokenly pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko as president of the Ukraine breached previously close ties between Russia and the Ukraine. Looking to make Yushchenko pay a political price and to make the Ukraine pay an economic price for favoring the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to exploit a dispute over prices between the two nations’ natural gas companies.

On Jan. 1, Russia stopped delivering gas supplies to the Ukraine, resulting in the Ukraine siphoning natural gas from Russian pipelines running through its territory intended for Europe. By the next day, Europeans claimed that their natural gas supplies had been reduced by as much as 50 percent and worried that the spat would cause heating bills to rise. Serbia introduced rationing of natural gas. Others countries reportedly considered switching to oil as an alternative fuel, causing oil prices to spike.

As the Russian-Ukrainian dispute illustrates, energy can be a potent political weapon – one that can have dramatic consequences even for innocent bystanders.

Why should we care?

Energy is also being wielded as a political weapon in the U.S. Like the sword of Damocles hanging over our economy, an energy crunch looms over our heads courtesy of environmental activists.

This column spotlighted environmentalists as our real energy problem last June. Six months and an energy crisis later, little has changed.

Despite record high oil and natural gas prices in 2005, widespread concerns about our dependency on Mideast oil, and 55 Republican votes in the Senate, the all-powerful environmental lobby still was able to stop Congress from passing legislation before Christmas that would have opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas drilling.

But even if we could produce more oil and gas domestically or in Canada, environmentalists stand ready to block its transportation.

High natural gas prices have revived plans for two massive pipelines in North America. The Alaska Gas Pipeline, stretching from Prudhoe Bay to Alberta would stretch 1,700 miles, and cost $20 billion and take 10 years to build. An alternative is the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, which would start 250 miles to the east, but would only stretch 800 miles, cost $6 billion and take 3 years to build.

While environmentalists don’t like either pipeline, if they had to favor one, it would be the longer, more expensive and time-consuming Alaska Gas Pipeline, according to a recent Washington Post report (Dec. 5).

Why? Because the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline would greatly aid the development of Canadian oil sands, a resource containing several hundred years worth of oil, which environmentalists don’t want developed because of their supposed concerns over the dreaded global warming. Also, the longer, more expensive, more time-consuming Alaska Gas Pipeline provides more opportunities for political attack.

Environmentalists are doing everything in their power to ensure that whatever energy is available will be more expensive.

In December, environmentalists lured seven states in the Northeast (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont) into a tentative Kyoto Protocol-like agreement called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

Under the pact, regional power plant emissions of greenhouse gases are to be reduced by 10 percent by 2019 – a move that will force Northeasterners to pay higher prices for electricity because of increased reliance on natural gas rather than coal. This increased demand for natural gas – without any new supplies being made available – may further pressure gas prices upward for everyone else.

The RGGI is a somewhat ironic agreement since the Kyoto Protocol, which has been in effect less than a year, is already a widely acknowledged failure. Most of its European signatories won’t be able to meet their commitments under the treaty without reducing economic growth.

And as illustrated by JunkScience.com’s Kyoto Count-Up, the alleged benefits of the treaty are very slight compared to its enormous costs – $130 billion in lost global gross domestic product since February 2005 for potentially avoiding about 0.001 degrees Centigrade in global warming. What a deal.

Ready access to affordable energy is the lifeblood of modern economies. Vladimir Putin understands this principle quite well, although his application of it was quite rudimentary. Environmentalists have much more experience wielding energy as weapon than Putin. They are gradually – and with much greater subtlety – making energy more expensive and more difficult to access.

To what end?

In a Dec. 15 column, columnist George Will recently commented that “environmentalism is collectivism in drag.” The primary purpose of environmentalism is to create and use scarcity to “enlarge governmental supervision of individuals’ lives,” he observed.

If environmentalists want to control our lives, let them admit it and the let the political debate begin. In the meantime, let’s not be fooled into believing that oil and gas drilling prohibitions, pipeline controversies and global warming alarmism are anything more than cynical tactics intended to achieve advance a grim anti-liberty, anti-growth social and political agenda.

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRwatch.com, is adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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