/ May 27, 2021
By John J. Metzler
Who would imagine that pipeline politics would be a defining feature of the new Administration? Pipelines after all are the ultimate infrastructure project; unseen, unsung, underground but exceedingly critical to moving fuel, gas or water. As pipelines are truly just under the surface, they somehow create some rarely seen political hijinks.
So let’s start with a tale of three pipelines recently in the news.
First the Keystone pipeline
, which was slated to bring Canadian crude oil into refineries the United States. Originally stopped by the Obama Administration in 2015, Keystone had a second chance two years later when President Donald Trump revived the project.
But in an unpredictable twist of folly, Keystone’s fortunes changes in an instant when the new Biden Administration, on its first day in office, promptly shut down the uncompleted pipeline thus losing thousands of high paying Union jobs and endangering America’s hard won energy independence. It was equally an insult to close ally Canada.
Then there’s the Colonial pipeline
, a conduit for gasoline which originates in Texas and stretches to New Jersey. Colonial was shut down by a massive computer hack and predictable ransom demand. The hack was reportedly from Russia or somewhere in Eastern Europe. Before long there were gasoline shortages in some American states, deja vu
of similar scenes during the late 1970’s. But here when the hackers ransom of $5 million was paid by the company in Bitcoin, suddenly the problem disappeared.
In Colonial’s case the Administration did not instinctively blame Russia or point the finger at President Vladimir Putin; the expected retort from President Joe Biden, “Come on man, this has Putin's bloody fingerprints all over it,” was surprisingly missing. The major media’s Pavlovian Russia, Russia, Russia
refrain was largely unspoken.
The President stated, “There is no evidence Russia is involved.” The FBI said that a shadowy group called “DarkSide” was the culprit in Colonial’s shutdown.
Colonial was a wake-up call and a sinister warning that USA pipelines, electric and water supply grids are probably more vulnerable to hacking, state-sponsored or otherwise, than we would like assume. Think of the possible state players; Russia, China, Iran, North Korea.
Then there’s Russia’s Nord Stream pipeline
which when complete will serve as a natural gas conduit to Germany. Contrary to other Russian pipelines transiting through Ukraine and Poland into Germany, this controversial $11 billion line runs under the Baltic Sea bypassing the Baltic states and Poland. The new pipeline will deprive Ukraine and Poland of gas transit fees which Gazprom now pays.
Given that the Nord Stream brings NATO-ally Germany and dangerous gas dependency on Russia, President Trump vehemently opposed the pipeline which caused undue political friction with Berlin.
In December 2019, the Trump Administration, with wide bi-partisan Congressional support, sanctioned companies working on the 760 mile undersea pipeline owned by Russia’s Gasprom. Donald Trump argued that the pipeline could turn Germany into a “hostage of Russia”.
European Union countries already get nearly half of their gas from Russia.
Thus, initially President Joe Biden also opposed Nord Stream. During Senate confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated that he was “determined to do whatever we can to prevent that completion” of Nord Stream.
Then what’s called in diplomacy a rapid volte face
, a turn-around mysteriously transpired.
The Biden Administration suddenly waived the Trump sanctions against the Russian company and basically gave the Kremlin a green light to complete the project into Germany.
Even more curious, the U.S. lifted sanctions against Matthias Warnig, a former East German intelligence officer, who serves as the Nord Stream’s chief executive!
The switch came in the wake of the Colonial shutdown and a meeting between Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Iceland.
Biden’s blunder caused political blowback even among the President’s Democrat Party; Sen. Bob Menendez of (D-NJ) stating, that he doesn’t understand “how today’s decision will advance U.S. efforts to counter Russian aggression in Europe.”
Republican Congressman Michael McCaul, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee described Nord Stream searingly; “It’s a Russian malign influence project that threatens to deepen Europe’s energy dependence on Moscow, render Ukraine more vulnerable to Russian aggression and provide billions of dollars to Putin’s coffers.”
Ukrainian President Zelensky warned completion of the pipeline would be a “personal loss” for Joe Biden and a “serious political victory for Moscow.”
Though Biden’s risky moves aim to improve transatlantic relations with Berlin, waiving Nord Stream sanctions presents a major geopolitical gaffe which hardly helps Europe nor America.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).
Free Press International