The U.S. Department of Energy’s Rebranded ‘Freedom Gas’ Is a Not-So-Subtle Dig at Russia

Will Belgians and Germans looking to heat their homes this winter draw reassurance, and cheap energy bills, from American “freedom gas”?

Maybe while they’re tucking into a classic dish of moules et “freedom fries”? (Remember that?)

That’s more or less the claim from the Department of Energy (DOE), which touted the expansion of the Freeport liquid natural gas (LNG) facility in the Gulf of Mexico by saying that it would spread “freedom gas” to the world.

That “freedom gas” would give “America’s allies a diverse and affordable source of clean energy,” U.S. Under Secretary of Energy Mark W. Menezes said in a release earlier this week, timed to a clean energy conference in Vancouver, Canada.

Menezes then went one step further, renaming LNG “molecules of U.S. freedom.”

Rebranding in the world of oil and gas is not uncommon, but typically those name changes focus on something else: downplaying energy companies’ links with fossil fuels.

This paint-job had a clearly different purpose, and was not even the first time the DOE has claimed that “freedom” comes in gas form.

A muddled metaphor

Earlier this month in an interview with reporters in Brussels, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry also referred to “freedom” gas, and told news site Euractiv who that “freedom” was for: Europeans.

Perry said that, after liberating Europe from the Nazis in the 1940s, “the United States is again delivering a form of freedom to the European continent,” adding that, “rather than in the form of young American soldiers, it’s in the form of liquified natural gas.”

(The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy, unsurprisingly, declined to comment.)

The World War II references were slightly muddled, given Perry’s metaphor appeared to target Russia—not Germany—and specifically the controversial Nordstream 2 pipeline. The project has been a source of deep division among European countries for years over how closely the bloc’s energy security should be intertwined with Russia. Perry also said that sanctions against European companies involved in the Nordstream 2 pipeline were still on the table.

Merkel And Medvedev Inaugurate Nord Stream Gas Pipeline
The Nord Stream Baltic Sea gas pipeline to western Europe was inaugurated in 2011. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Sean Gallup Getty Images

That pipeline, which is backed by Russia’s Gazprom and a handful of other European energy companies, would bring Russian gas to Germany via the Baltic Sea, rather than through traditional “transit countries” in Eastern Europe, particularly Ukraine, which provide a market for gas as well as a route from Russia to western European markets.

Those transit countries receive payments for allowing gas pipelines to pass across their borders, which means the pipeline could imperil crucial revenue. Meanwhile, it has inflamed concerns about European energy security, given memories of a dispute between Russia and Ukraine that devolved into Russia shutting off European access to gas during the winter of 2006.

The rise of an LNG giant

But behind the DOE’s bizarre branding, of course, is the rise of a global LNG giant. Not only has the U.S. become largely energy independent, but the shale boom has brought such a surplus of oil and gas production that the U.S. has now gone for stretches of more than a year as a net exporter of natural gas, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said in May.

Those exports have redrawn the map of the global energy market, leaving no port or refinery completely untouched, including in Europe. U.S. LNG exports to countries in the EU, including the U.K., were more than 13 million cubic feet in 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That is about 13 times what exports were in 2016, when exports began in earnest.

American LNG still makes up only a fraction of the gas delivered into Europe—it’s far eclipsed by traditional pipeline exports from Russia, followed by Norway and Algeria. Plus, the primary destination for U.S. LNG is actually in Asia, making the European focus somewhat odd.

But the pace of U.S. LNG exports has been exceptional. And if those numbers continue to grow, it will be a potent reminder that for oil and gas, “freedom” was probably not the word Perry was looking for. In that case, “dominance” would likely be a better fit.

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