- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009




By Peter Schechter

HarperCollins, $24.95, 319 pages

Marshall I. Goldman, long a Soviet specialist at Harvard, last year wrote “Petrostate — Putin, Power and the New Russia,” a sobering inside look at Gazprom, the Russian energy monopoly. A boastful functionary there showed Mr. Goldman a wall-sized display of Gazprom’s holdings, featuring pipelines that fanned out over Europe. This fellow bragged that a flick of a switch could cut off gas supplies to any nation - or city - that fell out of favor with Russia’s leaders.

The implication was that Gazprom had Europe in mind. Now, in “Pipeline,” an entertaining and sobering thriller, Peter Schechter takes the scenario a scary step further. He has Russia’s largest oil company, Volga Gaz (an apparent bow to caution; one does not blithely offend Russian plutocrats in these Putin days), scheming to gain control of Latin American natural gas supplies that would be shipped to the United States by liquefied natural gas (LNG) vessels or a pipeline/tunnel under the Bering Strait.

Mr. Schechter sets the stage for his drama with an apocalyptic scenario in which a gas shortfall causes an electrical blackout in California. The state is caught in the mother of all freeway pileups. Commerce halts. Telephone communications fall silent. Hardened criminals seize prisons and escape to ravage the countryside. The White House scrambles to find new energy sources to prevent future such failures.

Meanwhile, Volga Gaz officials are pushing a financial shell game that permits a German company that Russia covertly owns to gain control of gas reserves in both Peru and Bolivia. As a plotter boasts, “If things in Peru go as well as you promise, Volga Gaz will control the principal South American gas fields in 30 days. The Americans are counting on this gas to avoid another California, and they won’t know what hit them. In a month’s time, Russia will have the ability to turn the gas flow on and off as well. This power can allow Californians a sigh of relief or it can spread the shortage to the entire Western part of the United States.”

Mr. Putin’s pouting pique is at the heart of the scheme. Russia had “paid dearly” for the world presumption that it was a has-been power. “As Russia’s leaders, we have a responsibility to push back. To show that we have cards and that we’re willing to play them. And … the biggest, nastiest, broadest card we have is gas. Lots and lots of expensive gas.”

Nor does Russia give a hoot about world opinion. “It’s the end result that counts. History won’t give a [expletive deleted] how we got there. What the books will write about is the audacity that suddenly put Russia in control of a large percentage of the biggest gas needs of the United States of America.” Control of the Latin gas would make Russia the supplier of “nearly 100 percent of America’s gas needs. … We will have the power to detonate a 1,000 Californias with a mere snap of our fingers.”

The White House, predictably, tries to talk its way around the problem by sending a delegation to Moscow to negotiate, including a 20s-naif with no experience in dealing with the Russians. One watches with horror - well, interest! - as he tumbles headlong into a classic KGB-style honey trap: a knockout beauty with a pantingly obvious determination to “get to know you better.”

Mr. Schechter, who does international political and communications consulting from Washington, has been around quite a few blocks, both in the United States and abroad. He writes knowledgeably of the methodology of skullduggery.

What adds a helpful patina of realism to his scenario is his knowledge of how gas reserves are distributed around the world, and the barriers that keep it from traveling from the ground to consumers’ homes. For instance, natural gas can been cooled and liquefied to where it can be loaded onto tankers and shipped to market, and thence into pipelines.

Unfortunately the facilities that receive and process liquefied natural gas (LNG) are “big, ugly and environmentally controversial,” hence only three exist in the United States, in Louisiana, Boston and Maryland. Foes call LNG “potential exploding bombs.” In reality, even if attacked, the stores would burn, not explode; for shipping, it is safer than oil or gasoline. Nonetheless, “greens” in Delaware evoked this fear a couple of years ago to block an LNG port across the Delaware River in New Jersey.

Yes, Mr. Schechter does have a “message,” in dialogue that sounds like the opening segment of a T. Boone Pickens TV pitch for wind power: “The Americans are shortsighted; they won’t see that a long-term dependence on Russia is a strategic trap. They can’t get beyond their big cars. Their crazy use of water. Of electricity. … The United States is incapable of change.”

Perhaps, but in any event, Vladimir Putin is watching.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence.

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