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Obama says free trade deal would lower Europe's dependence on Russia for gas exports

BRUSSELS - A trans-Atlantic free trade deal would allow the European Union to reduce its dependence on Russian energy and strengthen its ability to stand up to Moscow on issues like Ukraine, U.S. President Barack Obama said Wednesday.

Several of the 28 EU nations regret their heavy dependence on Russian gas now that they are seeking to punish Moscow for its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

Obama showed his willingness to help with the EU's energy quandary. "Once we have a trade agreement in place, export licenses for projects — for liquefied natural gas destined to Europe — would be much easier, something that's obviously relevant in today's geopolitical climate," Obama said.

Currently, the EU imports more than a third of its gas from Russia and tapping into the plentiful supplies in the United States would alleviate a pressing problem.

While Russia's economy would probably suffer even more from cutting off gas supplies to Europe in retaliation for tough economic sanctions, the mere prospect still scares EU leaders.

Providing more energy supplies would therefore also be a bargaining chip for Washington in the trans-Atlantic talks as both sides still have deep differences over a range of sectors, from farming to Hollywood movies.

It did not deter the 28-nation bloc from immediately reaching for the outstretched hand.

"We've asked the President to consider increasing the rhythm and scope of authorizations for export" of gas, said Joao Vale de Almeida, the EU ambassador in Washington.

However, Obama left no doubt that imports from the U.S. won't be a silver bullet, insisting "Europe collectively has to examine it energy policies."

Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the EU's executive arm, the Commission, said the two sides had agreed to hold a meeting on energy co-operation next Wednesday in Brussels.

The meeting will be chaired by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his EU counterpart Catherine Ashton, he added.

The U.S. has in recent years experienced a boom in gas production thanks to shale gas extraction. It remains reluctant, however, on authorizing exports to countries it doesn't have a free trade agreement with.

Experts say exporting more gas might lead to slightly higher gas prices in the U.S., but becoming a major exporter would also give the U.S. new geopolitical clout in the coming years. The first approved LNG export terminal at Sabine Pass, Louisiana, is scheduled to begin operations late next year.

Officials hope to conclude the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, negotiations by the end of the year, but that timetable might prove optimistic because many stumbling blocks remain.

The combined trade between the United States and the EU accounts for almost half of the world's gross domestic product and a third of world trade.

By embracing shale gas, the U.S. has seen falling both its dependence on foreign suppliers and energy prices. In densely populated Europe, however, shale gas exploitation through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, remains very controversial because of concerns about possible environmental damage.

But the current tensions with Moscow are focusing minds.

"There will be a lot of people happy in Moscow if we fail on TTIP," Vale de Almeida said.


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