Ban on Russian Energy Imports Gains Bipartisan, Bicameral Steam in Congress

Eighteen bipartisan U.S. Senators are backing a bill that would direct the president to declare a national emergency and prohibit imports of Russian energy commodities, including crude oil, petroleum products, liquefied natural gas (LNG), and coal. While the measure does not include Russian uranium, a senior Department of Energy official said addressing U.S. reliance on Russian uranium imports has grown “even more urgent.”

The Ban Russian Energy Imports Act, introduced on March 3 by U.S. Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (ENR), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) would declare a national emergency staked on aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine, which constitutes an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”

Primary Targets: U.S. Imports of Russian Crude and Coal

The bill directs the president to exercise prohibition authority granted in 1917 to prohibit imports by “any person subject to U.S. jurisdiction” crude oil, petroleum, petroleum products, LNG, and coal in which Russia or a Russian national “has any interest.” The approach is modeled on the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, a 1977 federal law that allows the president to regulate international commerce after declaring a national emergency, the senators said.

Vladimir Putin has used energy as a weapon of war. Russia’s actions demand a fundamental rethinking of American national security and our national and international energy policy, which currently support the Russian Federation by allowing the purchase and import of their energy resources,” a summary of the bill reads.

The ban would be in place only during a national emergency and either the president or Congress would be able to terminate the emergency and the import ban, the senators said. Significantly, the bill also exempts product that is already “loaded or in transit” at the time of enactment.

According to the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers trade association, the U.S. imported an average of 209,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil and 500,000 bpd of other petroleum products from Russia in 2021. Even when combined, these make up a small fraction of total U.S. fuel imports. Russian crude accounted for only 3% of U.S. crude oil imports and 1% of total crude oil processed by U.S. refineries.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) meanwhile says Russian coal made up just 5% of 5 million short tons (MMst) of coal imported over 2020, equal to about 1% of U.S. coal consumption in 2020. And while the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of natural gas, the U.S. also still imports some LNG, mostly to New England, a region that suffers pipeline constraints and limited storage capacity.

The proposal from Sens. Manchin and Murkowski, two centrist lawmakers, so far has the backing of all senators from Alaska Montana, Maine, Hawaii, including Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), John Tester (D-Montana), Steve Daines (R-Montana), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Angus King (I-Maine), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia), Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), Mark Kelly (D-Arizona), John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado), Kevin Cramer (R-North Dakota), Mark Warner (D-Virginia), Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana),  Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) also joined the bill.

Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania-1) and Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey-5) are slated to introduce companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The ‘Moral Obligation’ of Energy Independence

During a press conference on March 3, Murkowski, an ENR committee member and its former co-chair, suggested the bill is founded on a “moral obligation.” It has “legs” given its broad support, she said.

“There has been a flurry of bills, ideas floated out there in the past week, bills that have been introduced” to address Russia’s actions in Ukraine, she noted. “I think the difference is this is bipartisan—it means it actually has some legs—and the fact that it is bicameral as well I think is one of the reasons why you have so many folks gathered here today, because this is actually something that can make a difference and get Putin’s attention,” she said. 

Manchin said the bill’s purpose has been relayed to major oil producers, including Conoco, Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and Valero. “They’ve all committed to doing everything humanly possible to adjust wherever their sourcing may be. They’ve committed to basically … pull away from Russian products—that’s a strong statement from them—and do it by minimizing, not affecting, the markets here,” he said.

DOE Official: Addressing Uranium Imports from Russia Even More Urgent’

The bill, however, does not cover Russian uranium supplies to the U.S. According to a Section 232 investigation into the effects of uranium imports on U.S national security conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 2019 (which was made public in June 2021), almost all uranium used for U.S. nuclear power in 2018 was imported.

Between 2014 and 2018, most uranium was imported as uranium concentrate, mainly from Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, with a fraction (0.2%) coming from Russia. However, over that same period, U.S. utilities purchased about 20% of enriched uranium from Russia. According to the EIA, in 2020, 16% of total U.S. purchases of uranium came from Russia.

“To cut costs and remain viable in distorted U.S. electricity markets, many nuclear power operators have ended long-term contracts with higher-priced U.S. uranium producers and turned to foreign [state-owned enterprises] for artificially low-priced uranium imports,” the report said. However, that poses key supply vulnerabilities. If “foreign nations, particularly Russia and other former Soviet states, chose to suspend or otherwise end uranium exports to the United States,” U.S. nuclear generators “would not be able to operate at full capacity and would not be able to support critical infrastructure electric power,” it warns.

In April 2020, the Trump administration attempted to address that vulnerability through a three-pronged strategy to strengthen the full domestic nuclear fuel cycle, possibly deny imports of nuclear fuel fabricated in Russia or China, and promote advanced reactor technologies. The strategy proposed reviving the U.S. uranium mining industry, supporting uranium conversion, and ending reliance on foreign uranium enrichment.

Among other measures, the Trump administration proposed a U.S. uranium reserve to provide “assurance of availability of uranium in the event of a market disruption and support strategic U.S. fuel cycle capabilities, and is not designed to replace or disrupt market mechanisms.”

On Thursday, during a Senate ENR hearing to consider pending legislation on several Department of Energy (DOE) initiatives, Geraldine Richmond, undersecretary for science and innovation, told lawmakers that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine places more urgency on the agency’s uranium development efforts.

“At this point, what folks in the [National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)] as well as in the nuclear energy area are looking for other sources, and which we can partner with our allies, and also  different sources of uranium so we’re not dependent on Russia,” she said. However, she emphasized the situation is “rapidly changing.”

Along with securing fuel for existing reactors, the government is also spearheading initiatives to secure high assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), which some advanced reactor designs will need. “Currently there are only two sources of [HALEU],” Richmond noted. “One is Russia and the other is the Department of Energy. So unless the department acts swiftly, our advanced reactors are going to be again dependent upon Russia.”

Asked by ENR Ranking Member Sen. John Barrasso (R-West Virginia) whether the DOE is willing to produce HALEU for advanced reactors, Richmond said the DOE realizes the HALEU supply program “must address enrichment, transportation, storage, chemical conversion, and regulatory elements of the HALEU supply chain.” The “most urgent near-term needs” include supporting nine of the 10 projects under the DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), including its active demonstrations for an X-Energy project in Washington state and the Natrium project in Wyoming, which are slated to begin operations in 2028, she said.

“Until recently, the prevailing assumption was that the initial course of HALEU for both ARDP projects would be supplied by Russia, as you point out, under the provisions of the Russia suspension agreement administered by the Commerce Department,” said Richmond. That agreement, which the Commerce Department and Russia’s state-owned atomic energy corporation Rosatom reached in 2017, essentially extends checks on imported Russian uranium to 2040. Pivotally, it also seeks to reduce reliance on Russian uranium to meet about 20% of U.S. enrichment demand. By 2028, that agreement reduces that reliance to 15%.

The DOE’s nuclear office and the NNSA are exploring “feasible options” to address this issue, but any solution will require a substantial and sustained source of government funding on the order of provisions included in the House-passed Build Back Better bill, with 500 million for HALEU supply, along with support from industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and other stakeholders,” Richmond said.

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel@POWERmagazine).

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