Blog Post

Recycling Debates on Energy Independence and Energy Security

Oct 16, 2012 | Joel Darmstadter

As illustrated by the Presidential candidates' perhaps unexpected diversion into discussion of energy independence during their first debate, energy remains a contentious political issue - as it has been for the last few decades. We seem to be making little progress, however - either on the pursuit of energy independence (as if that were even a valuable goal) or on defining what its achievement would mean.

This isn't a new point. Presidential candidates since the 1970s have stressed energy independence, but - although US oil consumption has been declining relative to GDP - we remain solidy addicted to oil (whether produced in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Canada, or Texas).

In pondering how this state of affairs creates enduring national security as well as economic challenges, it may be worth recalling some brief remarks on energy and national security I prepared for an RFF event shortly before the 2008 election. Some specific examples aside, it could have been written today and remains relevant:

In the [2008] Presidential campaign, mercifully grinding to a close, you will have heard much about energy security and energy independence - with much of the rhetoric misguidedly conflating the two: even zero oil imports . . . do not spare us repercussions from events outside our borders. There's a saying which has by now morphed into a cliché but remains valid: An oil disruption anywhere - and whatever its genesis - means price increases everywhere. As long as the US remains a substantial oil consumer - not just importer - those threats endure.

Or, as I put it in a 2006 paper, and again in a recent post, "it is U.S. oil dependence, rather than oil-import dependence that exposes the country to the macroeconomic impact of turmoil in world markets."

In my 2008 talk, I followed up this line of thinking, arguing that:

We may . . . have reached a point where consideration of geopolitical factors, on the one hand, and analysis of markets, on the other, are more and more flip sides of the same coin. Focusing on one aspect without the other might be a seriously blindsighted approach to strategic thinking.

That remains valid today. The strategic concerns I had in mind in 2008 (Chinese control over Sudanese oil, Russian strongarm tactics over natural gas, feared machinations of a Hugo Chavez) persist, though they may no longer command the same degree of headline attention. Other sources of supply disruptions seem more likely- the Arab Spring was one illustration, and recent East Asian tension over possible undersea oil or Persian Gulf conflict arising from Iranian nuclear ambitions are others (and Chavez' persistence as a hemispheric irritant or worse seems likely given his recent reelection). But the underlying story remains the same. As I put it in 2008:

No matter how resourceful we are in seeing to our domestic energy needs . . . we'd better keep an eye on those events and situations where energy-rooted turmoil can genuinely impact our - and other countries' - national, and not just energy security.

At least, that is, until and unless we can finally reduce our oil consumption, which neither candidate seems to have a plan for doing (though recently tightened fuel economy standards are a step in the right direction).

Don't take any timelessness of my 2008 arguments as evidence of foresight - picking energy independence as a controversial issue in the next election has been a winning bet for a long time. Politicians apparently enjoy recycling arguments almost as much as academics do. Nevertheless, the virtually timeless persistence of myths and clichés on matters relating to energy is both interesting or profoundly frustrating.