Opinion: Climate, US Oil Exports and Energy ‘Less Dependence’

on July 30, 2014 at 4:00 PM
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Congress is currently involved in a highly polarizing and critical topic regarding America’s future: energy sources and the economic and environmental costs of our current regulations and policies.

Several Senate and House committee hearings reflect this: hearing on “Laboratories of Democracy: The Economic Impacts of State Energy Policies,” “Modernizing the Business of Environmental Regulation and Protection,” “Breaking the Logjam at BLM: Examining Ways to More Efficiently Process Permits for Energy Production on Federal Lands,” and “Leveraging America’s Natural Resources as a Revenue Generator and Job Creator.”

In some of these, and other hearings, the underlying piece has been the environmental and economic impacts of climate change. Bringing attention to climate change, Congress should consider energy independence in the face of these threats to our energy security and global systems. None of the more well-known proposals and strategies to “stop global warming” that have been presented have been terribly convincing in having a realistic chance of working, even if they are fully implemented today. The problem is that a country cannot have a domestic public policy agenda for confronting climate change, a comprehensive solution requires a global effort. When our policymakers look towards a future of energy independence (or less-dependence), it contributes to the exclusion of international efforts and partnerships to leverage energy infrastructure due to this internal focus and agenda.

The United States has a lot of energy, mostly in the form of coal and natural gas. The problem we have is with liquid transportation fuels like gasoline and diesel fuel derived from crude oil. We have a relatively low supply of crude oil reserves on a global scale – 2.6% of the world total – although recent discoveries and success in developing shale oil has led to an impressive import reduction.

Energy independence, per se, may not be the ultimate goal our nation should seek. What we know we don’t want is energy dependence; but we don’t have to be independent to achieve the absence of dependence. Rather, we ought to have ample domestic supply to shield companies and consumers from international market volatility. That is easier to achieve than full independence. The topic of discussion today as the country marches forward along the energy independence path is whether to export crude oil. It depends. The United States should reduce its dependence on foreign sources of energy; however, it does not make sense to attempt to reach full independence from the global market place.

As to the environmental category, sometimes the goals of energy independence and the environment can conflict, e.g., drilling in fragile Arctic areas off the northern coast of Alaska. However, in general, drilling in the U.S. is more environmentally benign than in many of the countries we import from because of our stronger environmental standards and best practices.

Dan Yergin, co-founder and chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, focuses on the importance of thinking seriously about one energy source that “has the potential to have the biggest impact of all.” That source is efficiency. It’s a simple idea, as he points out, but one that is strangely “the hardest to wrap one’s mind around.” More efficient cars, airplanes, buildings, technologies, and other products and services have the potential to change the world, leading to energy “independence”, however we decide to define that term.

According to Jay Hakes, author of “A Declaration of Energy Independence,” there are 7 economically- and politically-viable paths to energy independence: “store massive emergency reserves, drive the car of the future, bring alternative fuels to market, plug into an electric future, adopt energy taxes liberals and conservatives like, make energy conservation a patriotic duty, and throw some hail Marys.” The key message in these paths is that innovation and technology investments are the ways by which we can effectively pursue a more secure energy future. As Hakes says, “Transportation assumes primary responsibility for America’s massive dependence on foreign oil”; thus, investments in technology to advance fuel efficiency in transportation vehicles will provide a better future in energy “less-dependence.” Either way, political and financial risks must be taken to further these initiatives.

Bennett Resnik is a law student at Vermont Law School and has worked in both public and private arenas, focusing on government relations, domestic public policy issues, as well as federal and state energy and environmental regulation. Contact: [email protected]