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Playing pipeline favorites? Biden clears way for Russian gas line after nixing Keystone XL

Administration leaves many baffled with decision to ease way for completion of Nord Stream 2 after calling it "bad idea" that "advances Russian interests."

Updated: May 23, 2021 - 10:16pm

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Following a Biden administration move to lift U.S. sanctions blocking completion of Russia's Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, critics are charging that the new president — who canceled the Keystone XL pipeline on his first day in office — is more concerned about Russian energy jobs and independence than he is about America's own.

"President BIden, if [you] can't put America First, can you at least not put Russia first?" form Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted.

The administration last week announced it is waiving sanctions on both the Russian company behind the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and its top executive, Matthias Warnig, a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The pipeline will directly connect Russia to Germany, allowing the former to double its natural gas deliveries to the latter, handing Moscow significant leverage over the Germans and most of the Eastern European energy market.

The 764-mile line has remained roughly 90% complete for many months, as objections from crosspartisan political majorities across Europe and Capitol Hill have prevented the Russians from completing the project.

Many are baffled by the abrupt decision to effectively allow completion of the pipeline that Secretary of State Antony Blinken as recently as this month called "a bad idea" that "advances Russia's interests and undermines Europe's interests and our own." 

Even within the president's own party, criticism has been blunt.

"The administration has said that the pipeline is a bad idea and that it is a Russian malign influence project," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement. "I share that sentiment, but fail to see how today's decision will advance U.S. efforts to counter Russian aggression in Europe."

The decision, he added, has "created uncertainty in many corners of Europe."

"It really undercuts Biden's 'I'm tough on Russia' stance," John Herbst, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told NBC.

"Today's actions demonstrate the Administration's commitment to energy security in Europe, consistent with the President's pledge to rebuild relationships with our allies and partners in Europe," said Blinken in a statement. "We will continue to oppose the completion of this project, which would weaken European energy security and that of Ukraine and Eastern flank NATO and EU countries. Our opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is unwavering.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has welcomed Biden's decision, as the U.S. president attempts to strengthen the close relationship with Germany that former President Trump frequently challenged, including on the matter of Nord Stream 2.

"I think it's very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia, when 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 of the project in 2018.

"Germany is totally controlled by Russia, because they will be getting 60%-70% of their energy from Russian and a new pipeline,” said Trump. Germany is the sixth largest energy consumer in the world and the largest consumer of natural gas.

Elisabeth Braw, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, downplayed the significance of the sanctions decision in a recent interview on "Just the News AM."

"This is nothing new," she said. "Ronald Reagan, back in the day, imposed sanctions on a Soviet pipeline being built to West Germany, and then lifted them after realizing that the same thing could happen to U.S. companies operating elsewhere in the world."

Even as Biden defers to Merkel on the Russian pipeline in a bid to rekindle the bilateral relationship, he continues to slight U.S. ally Canada over pipeline politics.

Top Biden administration ally Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer late last year ordered the shutdown of Canadian energy company Enbridge's Line 5 — a line that transports more than half a million barrels a day of oil and natural gas liquids from Alberta's oil fields to the U.S. Midwest and eastern Canada. 

Enbridge, backed by the Canadian government, is now fighting Michigan in U.S. federal court to keep the pipeline in operation.

"It is a vital part of Canadian energy security, and I have been very clear that its continued operation is non-negotiable," Seamus O'Regan, Canada's minister of natural resources, told the Associated Press.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is being encouraged to stand his ground in the face of the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline and the threatened shutdown of Line 5, which has been in operation since 1953.

"The Canadians are likely to make this their big issue," said Christopher Sands, the director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. "This is one where I don't think [Trudeau] can afford to back down." 

Tensions are also brewing around another Enbridge pipeline — Line 3, which is a crude oil line that extends from Alberta through Minnesota to Wisconsin. Hundreds of protesters are planning to gather in early June to "put our bodies on the line, to stop construction and tell the world that the days of tar sands pipelines are over," declares the organization leading the demonstration. "We will propel this issue to the top of the nation's consciousness and force Biden to act." 

With Keystone XL nixed, and Line 5 hanging in the balance, the question is whether the U.S. president will again bow to climate activists at home — with attendant costs for American workers, energy independence, and relationship with Canada — while bolstering Russian energy interests and pipeline development. Secretary Blinken is scheduled to appear this week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he is expected to provide some clarity on the administration's thinking.