Energy Policy and National Security: The Need for a Nonpartisan Plan

As I write this president’s message, the U.S. election has just resulted in a resounding victory for the Republican Party, which will have control of both the Senate and House of Representatives when the new Congress convenes in January. While some may despair that these results portend an even more divided federal government with a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, I choose to view this event as an opportunity in disguise in regards to the important and urgent issue of U.S. energy policy.

President Barack Obama has staked a major part of his presidential legacy on combating climate change. He has felt stymied by the inability to convince Congress to pass comprehensive legislation to mandate substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, his administration has leveraged the power of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to craft rules that will, in effect, force the closure of many of the biggest emitters: coal power plants. These new rules will likely face challenges in courts and Congress. To withstand the legal challenge, EPA lawyers are working overtime to make the rules as ironclad as possible.

The Republicans who oppose the EPA rules will have difficulty in overturning the rules with legislation because they do not have the veto-proof supermajority of two-thirds of Congress. Rather, the incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said before the election that he would try to block appropriations that would be needed to implement the new rules. But this is a risky move because it could result in a budget battle with the White House. The United States cannot afford another grinding halt to the federal budget.

Several environmental organizations have charged many Republican politicians with being climate change deniers. Huge amounts of money were funneled to the political races on both sides of the climate change divide. On the skeptical side, political action groups affiliated with the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch received tens of millions of dollars; they have cast doubt on the scientific studies of climate change.  And on the side of wanting to combat climate change, about $100 million was committed by NextGen Climate, a political action group backed substantially by billionaire Tom Steyer. Could this money have been better spent on investments in shoring up the crumbling U.S. energy infrastructure? Instead of demonizing each side and just focusing on climate change, can the nation try a different approach that can win support from a core group of Democrats and Republicans?

Both Democratic and Republican leaders believe that the United States must have strong national security. Could this form the basis of a bipartisan plan for better energy policy? But this begs another question that would have to be addressed first: What energy policy would strengthen national security? Some politicians, including several former presidents, have called for the United States to be energy independent. Due to the recent energy revolution in technologies to extract so-called unconventional oil and gas from shale and sand geological deposits, the United States is on the verge of becoming a major exporter of natural gas and has dramatically reduced its dependence on outside oil imports (except from the friendly Canadians who are experiencing a bonanza in oil extracted from tar sands). However, these windfall developments do not mean that the United States is energy independent, even including the natural resources in all of North America.

Oil is a globally traded commodity and natural gas (especially in the form of liquefied natural gas) is tending to become this type of commodity. This implies that the United States cannot decouple its oil and gas production and consumption from other countries. For example, a disruption in the Strait of Hormuz leading to the Persian Gulf will affect about 40 percent of the globe’s oil deliveries because of shipments from Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirate. Such a disruption might occur in an armed conflict with Iran, which has been at loggerheads with the United States over its nuclear program. Moreover, while the United States has not been importing significant amounts of oil from the Middle East recently, U.S. allies Japan and South Korea rely heavily on oil from that region. Thus, a major principle for U.S. national security is to work cooperatively with these allies to develop a plan to move away from overreliance on oil and gas from this region and an even longer term plan to transition away from fossil fuels.

Actually, this long term plan is not really that far into the future. According to optimistic estimates (for example, from Cambridge Energy Research Associates) for when global oil production will reach its peak, the world only has until at least 2030 before the peak is reached, and then there will be a gradual decline in production over the next few decades after the peak.1)Peter Jackson, The Future of Global Oil Supply: Understanding the Building Blocks, Report, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, November 2009. (Pessimistic views such as from oil expert Colin Campbell predict the peak occurring around 2012 to 2015.2)Colin J. Campbell, “The Age of Oil,” in Ugo Bardi, Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014). We thus may already be at the peak.) Once the global decline starts to take effect, price shocks could devastate the world’s economy. Moreover, as the world’s population is projected to increase from seven billion people today to about nine billion by mid-century, the demand for oil will also significantly increase given business as usual practices.

For the broader scope national security reason of having a stable economy, it is imperative to develop a nonpartisan plan for transitioning from the “addiction” to oil that President George W. Bush called attention to in his State of the Union Address in January 2006. While skepticism about the science of climate change will prevail, this should not hold back the United States working together with other nations to craft a comprehensive energy plan that saves money, creates more jobs, and overall strengthens international security.

FAS is developing a new project titled Sustainable Energy and International Security. FAS staff will be contacting experts in our network to form a diverse group with expertise in energy technologies, the social factors that affect energy use, military perspectives, economic assessments, and security alliances. I welcome readers’ advice and donations to start this project; please contact me at [email protected]. FAS relies on donors like you to help support our projects; I urge you to consider supporting this and other FAS projects.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Peter Jackson, The Future of Global Oil Supply: Understanding the Building Blocks, Report, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, November 2009.
2. Colin J. Campbell, “The Age of Oil,” in Ugo Bardi, Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014).