The first grenade lobbed by President Trump at this week’s meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was an unexpected one. In a breakfast meeting on Wednesday, Trump challenged Germany not on the well-worn ground that it’s not spending as much on defense as mandated but, instead, on its relationship with Russia.
“I think it’s very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia, where you’re supposed to be guarding against Russia, and Germany goes out and pays billions and billions of dollars a year to Russia,” Trump said. “So we’re protecting Germany. We’re protecting France. We’re protecting all of these countries. And then numerous of the countries go out and make a pipeline deal with Russia, where they’re paying billions of dollars into the coffers of Russia.”
“Germany is totally controlled by Russia,” he later added, “because they will be getting from 60 to 70 percent of their energy from Russia and a new pipeline. And you tell me if that’s appropriate, because I think it’s not, and I think it’s a very bad thing for NATO and I don’t think it should have happened.”
As can be the case with Trump’s critiques, there’s some truth to what Trump is saying. And as is usually the case, Trump is using whatever he has at hand to disparage a perceived enemy.
Our Rick Noack has an excellent, detailed explanation of the pipeline at the heart of Trump’s comments. For those unfamiliar with the root issue, though, it’s worth adding a bit more context.
Most NATO countries rely on imported energy to meet national demand. The exceptions are Canada and Norway, the former thanks to various natural resources and the latter thanks to massive oil production. Germany imported more than half the energy it used in 2015, according to World Bank data. Russia, like Canada, produces more energy than it uses. It’s not a NATO country, but we’ve included it on the chart below.
(Including Norway breaks the scale, as you can see at lower left, so we’ve left it off.)
The energy used by Germany needs to be imported from somewhere. In 2005, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröeder, signed a deal with Russia to run a pipeline under the Baltic Sea to provide natural gas to the country. That deal has raised eyebrows, both because it was signed after Schröeder lost his reelection bid and because, as Trump noted, he went on to lead Rosneft, the Russian energy giant.
Russia is the world’s largest exporter of consumer-grade or “dry” natural gas, largely shipping it to neighbors through pipelines.
The advent of hydraulic fracturing, though, vaulted the United States into position as the leading natural gas producer in the world. In 2015, Russia produced 599 billion cubic meters of natural gas; the United States produced 766 billion. It’s much harder, though, to run a pipeline from the United States to Germany than it is to run one from Russia to Germany, for obvious reasons. The most cost-effective way to export natural gas from the United States to foreign countries is to liquefy it and ship it by boat.
It took awhile for that to happen. The fracking boom occurred as President Barack Obama took office, but his administration wanted to evaluate the repercussions of exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) before approving massive export projects. Before 2016, relatively little LNG was exported.
After the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, though, Obama called for Europe to rely less on Russian gas — and Merkel pushed Obama to relax the U.S. restrictions on exporting LNG to Europe.
Once he was inaugurated, Trump made exports of LNG a focus of his administration — for geopolitical and commercial reasons. He’s regularly cited the increase in LNG exports as one of the ways in which he’s putting pressure on Russia and President Vladimir Putin.
That said, the three countries receiving the most LNG from the United States in 2017 were China, South Korea and Mexico. (The United States also exports natural gas to Canada and Mexico through pipelines, as one might expect.)
In a 2017 Bloomberg article titled “Germany is Addicted to Russian Gas,” an expert noted that “[t]here are not many other places apart from Russia where Germany can get a lot of gas quickly.” That article also noted that 40 percent of the country’s natural gas came from Russia — with another pipeline from Russia under construction. However, only about 10 percent of the energy produced in Germany came from burning natural gas in 2017. (It aims to have 80 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.)
In other words, Trump is taking a real issue (about which others have expressed concerns) and used it to make a biting allegation about an American ally: That it’s “totally controlled” by Russia.
This is a rhetorical gambit from Trump that we’re used to by now. To undercut his opponents (real or perceived), he’ll often focus on one issue and hype it, often blowing it out of proportion. If Russia provides 40 percent of the fuel that generates 10 percent of Germany’s power, that’s 4 percent of the country’s energy production (though both numbers are growing). China held 7 percent of the U.S. national debt in 2016. Is the United States “totally controlled” by China?
We’re also used to Trump trying to turn a critique leveled at him against someone else. His disparagement of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in 2016 as “Lyin’ Ted” was first predicated on Cruz saying that Trump was lying during a March 2016 debate. Trump has been criticized since the campaign for being under Putin’s sway in some way. (“No, you’re the puppet.”) On Wednesday, he suggested that the person dancing to Putin’s tune was instead Merkel.
There’s another layer here, alluded to above. Trump also wants to boost American energy producers and geopolitics can be an effective way to increase LNG sales. If the response to Trump’s comments from Germany includes buying more American gas, neither Trump nor his allies in the energy industry are going to complain.