Fourth in a series of policy briefs laying out clear steps to re-think and re-orient US foreign policy.
By Sam Ratner
Key takeaway: Get “energy security” off the Democratic agenda and change the Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources’ job description to focus on achieving climate justice.
“Energy security” has been a buzz-phrase of US foreign policy for decades. In the last Congress, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Elliot Engel allowed a group of Republicans and centrist Democrats to add a provision to the 2019 State Department authorization bill requiring the president to appoint an Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources. The position already exists — it is held currently by the ironically-named Francis Fannon, a former oil lobbyist — but Engel’s bill would have formalized the role for future administrations. In the text of the bill, the Assistant Secretary’s job description doubles as a summary of how the bill’s authors view the purpose of US energy policy: “protecting and advancing United States energy security interests.”
In the next Congress, Engel will be gone, his seat taken by the much more progressive Jamaal Bowman. Progressives should make sure to retire the concept of “energy security” along with him, making an urgent turn toward climate justice the basis of our current energy policy.
Energy Security Rhetoric Justifies Reliance on Fossil Fuels
“Energy security” — the idea that the US must protect itself from the threat of fossil fuel supply shocks caused by geopolitical shifts — is an appealing concept for a certain type of liberal politician. It offers a kind of triangulation in which they can say that the progressive energy policies favored by their constituents are desirable, but only insofar as those policies further the logic of steely-eyed realism that passes for seriousness in Washington.
The Obama White House, for example, bragged that it was “advancing cleaner forms of energy” as part of its goal of “reducing our dependence on foreign oil.” The value in pursuing renewable energy, in other words, was that it limited the harm that some other government could cause by disrupting the US’s ability to meet its prodigious energy needs.
Of course, if energy security is the real purpose of US energy policy, then renewable investment is hardly the only option for achieving it. If we remove the ellipses from the Obama administration quote, we can see the real wages of a policy approach rooted in energy security.
In full, the quote reads:
“We are safely and responsibly developing our energy resources while advancing cleaner forms of energy, such as natural gas and renewables. In November 2013, America hit a milestone of energy independence: For the first time in nearly two decades, the US produced more oil domestically than it imported from foreign sources. And the US is now the number-one natural gas producer in the world.”
The same energy security logic that supported investment in renewables brought us fracking and all that goes with it. Any energy policy framework built around maximizing available supply directly undermines the only thing that can prevent climate disaster: keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
The Myth of Energy Insecurity
It would be one thing if the energy security framework, despite all the ills it justifies, accurately reflected the state of the world. If war around the Persian Gulf or civil unrest in Venezuela truly threatened to cut off US access to fossil fuels and significantly harm the US economy, politicians might be forgiven for wanting to guard against that threat.
However, as Robert Vitalis points out in his new book Oilcraft, there is simply no evidence that these scenarios will ever come to pass. Oil and natural gas follow the same market rules as other commodities — even if a particular seller is cut off from a particular buyer, the market shifts to cover that buyer’s need from another seller. No foreign government, no matter their level of antipathy toward the US, has ever been able to decisively threaten US energy supply.
Even the putatively mighty Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries largely failed in its attempts to institute an “oil embargo” against the US in late 1973, causing an estimated 4% supply disruption for a few months before backing off. It was then-president Richard Nixon’s draconian rationing policy in response to the threatened embargo that caused the infamous lines at gas stations often attributed to the embargo. The concept of energy security under threat from “foreign oil” rests on a myth — one that has been used to justify imperial military spending more often than green energy investment.
Focus on Climate Justice
It is time for progressive politicians to reject that myth and orient American energy policy explicitly against the real threat of climate change. We cannot rely on a policy framework that portrays “energy independence” as the highest good and treats transition to renewable energy as a nice supplement to domestic fossil fuel production. The only energy security that matters is securing a future in which people around the world can live their lives without heating the planet.
Rather than hoarding the benefits of fossil fuels for itself, the US should be defraying the costs of renewable energy and reversing environmental degradation around the world, but doing so requires a change in our government’s basic approach to energy policy. To that end, progressive members of Congress should strike the concept of “energy security” from the job descriptions of our bureaucrats and diplomats, and instead charge them with pursuing climate justice.
Sam Ratner is a contributing editor at Zitamar News, where he covers southeast African security issues, and a founding editor of Fellow Travelers Blog. He also writes the weekly global security newsletter Critical State for PRX and Inkstick Media. He tweets at @samratner.