Does energy independence = energy security?
I think one of the best ways to think about this topic is by thinking about an investment portfolio, and diversifying risk. In its most simplistic terms, it’s whether or not you have all your eggs in one basket – if you do, and something happens to that basket, then you certainly won’t be able to make any omelets.
More to the point, though – ‘energy security’ is essentially a matter of how many options you have to meet your energy needs. You are more insecure the less options you have, and more secure the more options you have, so it’s a direct relationships.
“Energy Independence” is essentially a campaign slogan or otherwise simplistic form of propaganda – in the case of the US, that is untenable, at least currently. (And no, it will not become tenable if Keystone XL is completed, and all federal lands are opened for hydraulic fracturing, and offshore drilling). Fossil fuels, combined, make up about 80% of the current US energy portfolio, in terms of sources. 37% Petrol, 25% Natural Gas, 21% Coal – as per 2010 Energy Information Administration data. The US cannot supply all of those resources itself, and since the 1970s has been declining steadily (Hubbert’s Peak) in domestic oil production, and while there has been a recent break of that trend, it will not bring about “energy independence”.
The US will not be ‘independent’ of its need for petrol – unless there is a significant decline in petrol usage. With that in mind, unless there is something developed to replace petrol’s vast use, particularly in terms of transportation, there is little chance of real “independence”.
Independence is often tied in with the notion of a vague geopolitical sense of America within the world – comments about unfriendly countries in the Middle East are frequent. In a way, independence becomes associated with freedom, even liberty, or patriotism. So it’s a useful way to sloganize discussion about energy.
But the problem is, there is still a severe lack of energy literacy in the US, so it’s (of course) easier to relate to broad problems in generalized terms.
With all this in mind, energy security is a valuable tool, both in terms of US domestic policy analysis, and actual geopolitical, geostrategic considerations. Energy security has an underlying acceptance that the current governing system of the world is extremely interdependent. It also acknowledges that there are different types and uses of fuel, and perhaps can earnestly look at something as essential as the change in supply and nature of petroleum – which is a critical factor to 20th century development, and how such development is different from the 21st century. That is to say, the type of oil that is available in present is much different from that available the last few hundred years – the low hanging fruit is gone; the oil we are now developing is generally harder to get, dirtier, requiring more effort to refine and make useful, and more laborious to transport. This makes the cost of energy production very significant, and complicated.
Energy security looks at those factors, where as energy independence pretends like they don’t exist, or can be overcome simply, somehow.
Many ‘experts’ agree that energy independence is idealistic, and also (at least in the case of the US) believe there is a direct of the amount of dependence on oil to the amount of security you have. The US, even with recent increases in domestic oil production, has little ability to influence the global market, as global demand (just think of the 2.6 billion people in China and India, their developing middle classes) dwarfs US output. And with the US still importing so much of it’s oil, there’s little chance to gain significant energy security by ‘making more oil’.
So the US should ultimately seek to distance itself from oil… many far-thinking countries in the oil rich Middle East are putting a great deal of importance on alternate energy, in part because of energy security, but part also because they understand the commodity value of the source — and yes, because there are also environmental concerns, in some cases.
The foresight that we have, looking at things via energy security, is realizing that oil is becoming less stable, more volatile, and less dependable. The hard reality is that the US is still vastly dependent on oil from the consumer perspective. So while there are complicated global energy/oil markets, in many ways the most significant factor in energy security for the US is actually how people want to live their lives – where do they want their energy to come from, and are they going to care enough to do something other keep oil as their dominant energy supply source?
Markets will play to demand, and demand can, potentially, trump any other geostrategic concerns and battle strategies that may affect energy policy abroad or at home. Obviously, natural gas is making their pitch as the energy of America’s future. Coal is struggling mightily to keep up, especially with its dirty reputation. But how does this play into the future of US energy?
As in recent discussion about what a national energy policy would look like, a major factor is how to plan for and deal with the future. The energy landscape is changing, and related to it are various economic, social, and environmental changes (and challenges). There are unprecedented situations, for opportunity and for problems, before us.
The big, scary question that nobody dares answer, unless they are to be labeled as an unrealistic futurist or perhaps hippie, pertains to how ‘energy security’ actually ties into ‘security’ in a broader sense — and actually ties into how we live our lives, and how society functions. The flip-side to wondering how we can possibly mitigate all of this growing global energy demand is asking whether or not this demand is both ‘good’, in the normative sense, and whether or not it is feasible, in the logistic sense. Surely demand can be met – people can create more nuclear power plants, and find dirtier crude oil, and more distant off-shore locations to drill, and more risky ways to get natural gas out of the earth. As well as more wind-farms, more dams, more solar panels. But there are limits, and there are costs.
I would argue that if you really want to consider ‘energy security’, and thus energy policy, you have to acknowledge that energy use is inherently related to how society functions, both within the domestic life of a nation, and within the planet as a whole. There are planetary bounds within which these other scenarios – like pricing oil – plays out. It is easy to overlook that just 100 years ago, the world looked very different. Only a few generations have passed, and now there is a robust industrialization (built off of cheap, abundant, sweet and light crude oil) of the world. This is significantly different from the historical trend of the world’s energy production and usage. It would be unwise to expect this trend to continue indefinitely, and not change, ever.
There is an interesting crossroads between energy security, ‘sustainability’, and straight functionality – but it’s one that is easily discarded because of the lack of urgency. But the curious thing is that there is less maneuverability the more urgency there is – and when you consider this in light of the trending I mentioned above (and many others I haven’t mentioned here), the situation we are in at present is a very difficult one to navigate and make ‘obviously right choices’.
I finish by saying that the real energy strategist is unavoidably obligated to understand both the trouble of supplying energy, but also demanding energy. It’s not just about how to meet needs – in many respects, that’s just numbers, just computer work. The hard part is acknowledging what motives and incentives have lead us to our current situation and usage of energy (and thus its influence on society), and how that can continue into the future, or change in the future. We have a historically unprecedented standard of living in the contemporary United States – it is indeed a luxury. If we are to maintain this going forward, there is much to consider. This is even more so the case if we understand our relation to the world – if other countries used energy the way we do, we would need more than one planet to supply them.
How do we mitigate that?
Energy ‘independence’ is out, unless you conceptualize independence from energy as meaning a pre-industrial lifestyle.
And until there is addressing these broader questions, at best it’s a matter of micromanagement of insufficient funds. There’s simply no way to pay rent if the cost is increasing every month, but your income is decreasing every month, whatever those numbers are.
Now, there’s a lot to gain and lose, even in this micromanagement process – many battles, wars, disputes, etc. Look at the Caspian Sea, look at the Arctic, look at the oil market, etc. Look at the disputes over who gets to build what pipeline, to whose refinery, and who gets to export the product? It’s a game that we’re all going to play, like it or not, because it’s where we are at right now.
But the real question regarding energy security is how much ‘a country’ is invested in to that system, which is arguably the system that built the 20th century and the world as we know it. Or are there other systems, and what will they be? What is the right balance between preparing for the new system, and mitigating the old system? The old system is not disappearing in the next 5 or 10 years, you could say even 20 years or more. But when it’s gone, where will the US be? Where will the world be, in terms of other systems of using energy? In terms of choices about energy?
It is this elusive, vague, seemingly arbitrary window of time, between necessity and a period of willful flexibility, that in many ways is the core of energy security. The present has to be mitigated, and the future has to be invented. The most obvious thing to do is to decrease dependence on oil, because there’s no question that global demand for oil is going to be rising. The related matters of developing other forms of energy present challenges to foresight, and to functionality. Those are the real questions – and many countries around the world have different cards dealt in terms of their solutions, and thereby a collective global solution.
So here is ‘energy security’ – it is something no one truly knows, because no one has ever been through it before, not like this. We’re all exploring this situation for the first time. I personally hope that our journey has a future destination of “a few generations from now” also having a significantly more advanced lifestyle than we did a few generations ago. But I’m convinced that how the transition period between the past, the present, and that future, will have very dramatic differences.
Jesse Parent is a researcher, analyst, and editor focusing on energy & resources, technology, and global affairs. For more of Jesse’s thoughts throughout the week and to see what news he’s following, you are invited to join the conversation via Twitter and Facebook. Visit Jesse Parent [INFLUENCE] to view Case Studies, Commentary and more.
- – -