The truth is fossil fuels will continue to dominate international energy supplies for the long-term simply because they are the least expensive and most pervasive fuel resources the world currently possesses. Indeed, the amount of natural gas and new sources of oil being discovered today is enough to overwhelm any assertion of peak oil or the need to transition to a zero-carbon energy policy. Consider the sheer amount of petroleum and natural gas found in the one month of September in 2009: BP discovered three billion barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico; Spanish energy firm Repsol tapped into the largest natural gas find in Venezuela’s history; Anadarko Petroleum announced the likely presence of hydrocarbon fuels for 700 miles along the west African coastline; and Petrobras of Brazil found even more hydrocarbon fuels in the Santos Basin (which several years prior was said to contain enough energy to make Brazil a global energy power). Simply put, peak oil alarmists and hydrocarbon declinists conveniently ignore the immense power of new technology to harness deeper, untapped sources of fossil fuels. What hydrocarbon engineers can do now no scientist a mere 50 years ago ever thought possible. This accounts for why date estimations for peak oil are continually getting extended.
Many U.S. politicians and security wonks are fond of the assertion that Americans contribute to insecurity at home and around the world by our dependence on foreign oil. By this line of reasoning, our addiction to energy from the likes of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela has effectively bought us our own enemies. This analysis fails to confront such realities that, as a 2009 RAND study concluded, terrorist attacks are so inexpensive that a decrease in Middle Eastern oil revenues would have virtually no impact on al-Qaeda’s fundraising capabilities. To see the irony in the dubious assertions that we fund our own enemies, imagine the kinds of retaliation a state like Saudi Arabia would engage in if we banned their imports. It is not difficult to picture King Abdullah reacting with such scorn and fury as to create an actual national security threat to the United States. Furthermore, two of the largest suppliers of crude to the United States are Canada and Mexico, among our staunchest allies and countries that are hardly terrorist breeding grounds. All of the talk about the benefits of choking malevolent countries from U.S. oil demand borders on ignorant isolationism. Because oil is a global commodity, prices are established globally and oil buyers will seek producers that boast the lowest cost. Thus there is no doubt that Venezuela could simply reap an equal amount of petroleum revenues from China in the event that the U.S. embargoed its oil supplies. The prospect of more Chinese involvement in our own hemisphere means that this is hardly a win-win situation.
More importantly, consuming energy that is only produced at home, as many in the “energy independence” debate are keen to propose, has implications that are at best unclear and at worst actually counterproductive. The gap between oil production and oil consumption in America is so immense that any effort to eliminate oil imports would force extremely costly new patterns of production and consumption on our parts. Declaring that we would no longer engage in the international oil trade, in other words, might very well cause more damage to the U.S. economy than improvement. Many people tend to overlook the fact that while the United States does import the majority of its oil, it is also one of the world’s biggest oil exporters. This is because oil is one of many goods that are being exchanged in a global marketplace. To entertain the notion that we can cease such trade relationships is to deny the inherent benefits of free trade as well as revert back to the import-substitution policies of the past that have well-known records of historical failure.
Many potential domestic sources of energy, such as the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, have their fair share of opponents. The ultimate irony in the American energy discourse today is that many of those who voice support for energy independence also oppose domestic petroleum production. You need look no further for evidence of this than the Obama Administration’s stated goal of decreasing oil imports and yet simultaneously maintaining the ban on offshore drilling in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.
The last and most prevailing argument for energy security revolves around climate change. This line of reasoning argues that countries must come together to find more sustainable and less carbon-centric forms of energy so that we may live in a cleaner, safer, and cooler world. No matter where one’s views lie on the global warming debate, imagine a world where the U.S. told powers such as China and India that the coal-based method of production that has allowed their economies to undergo historic transformations in recent decades is no longer permitted; if unstable countries such as Nigeria were to be deprived of revenue that fueled their financial systems; and if energy consumption became much more expensive worldwide simply due to precautionary measures taken by global politicians. In short, the notion that we would be more secure if we fundamentally transformed our energy system in order to stave off climate change is shortsighted.
All of this is not to suggest that we should abandon hopes for a more renewable and sustainable energy future. Indeed, there are many promises in the prospects of renewable energies. Yet, we must not kid ourselves to think that we can transform a crucial part of the global economy overnight, nor that our reliance of fossil fuels creates more problems than it does solutions. Nearly every source of energy comes with its own risks. And with this in mind we can conclude that the risks posed by fossil fuels are far outweighed by their benefits. While this may come across as heretical, the cold truth is that for the time being, there is little to no cause for alarm in how we consume our current energy supply.
Photo: Arne Hückelheim