Campaign Rhetoric and Our Energy Future

At their respective conventions, both President Obama and Mitt Romney spoke to a centrally important topic for America and the world: energy. Their positions – political posturing aside – are broadly similar. But rather than a coherent, sustainable vision for the energy future of the United States, both men’s rhetoric reflected the usual exercise in political base-touching, apple pie-polishing, and third-rail avoidance. And two important, perhaps crucial, pieces of the energy puzzle were hardly mentioned at all.

Obama in particular tried to stake a claim to having the energy answers our nation needs, with his acceptance speech dwelling for nearly 300 words on his administration’s energy accomplishments and goals. Since in their essence there was little difference between his underlying points and Romney’s, and since the latest odds in the betting markets currently have Obama as a 2-to-1 favorite to win reelection, I’ll focus primarily on analyzing Obama’s to understand the state of energy politics in this election season – which is, unfortunately, not promising.

Obama’s comments, for those who missed them, are worth reading in their entirety:

You can choose the path where we control more of our own energy. After 30 years of inaction, we raised fuel standards so that by the middle of the next decade, cars and trucks will go twice as far on a gallon of gas. We have doubled our use of renewable energy, and thousands of Americans have jobs today building wind turbines and long-lasting batteries. In the last year alone, we cut oil imports by 1 million barrels a day, more than any administration in recent history. And today the United States of America is less dependent on foreign oil than at any time in the last two decades. ...

We've opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration in the last three years, and we'll open more. But unlike my opponent, I will not let oil companies write this country's energy plan or endanger our coastlines or collect another $4 billion in corporate welfare from our taxpayers. We're offering a better path.

We're offering a better path where we — a future where we keep investing in wind and solar and clean coal, where farmers and scientists harness new biofuels to power our cars and trucks, where construction workers build homes and factories that waste less energy, where we develop a hundred-year supply of natural gas that's right beneath our feet. If you choose this path, we can cut our oil imports in half by 2020 and support more than 600,000 new jobs in natural gas alone.

And yes, my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet, because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke.

Let’s consider the various bases he touched here, and that untouched third rail, to which I shall presently turn.

Energy independence

Everybody loves energy independence – especially independence from oil-producing Middle-Eastern countries that rattle sabers at us, seem stuck in the Dark Ages, and fix oil prices to maximize what we pay them.

The problem is that national energy independence is unattainable and makes no sense. It is a policy that would set us back, as India was set back by its policy of import substitution – insulating its industries against external inputs and competition, retarding its economic growth – until the 1991 reforms that finally jolted its economy back to life.

Energy independence will never be a reality, unless extraordinary international barriers – posed perhaps by conflicts or technological breakdowns, or extreme U.S. isolationism – disrupt normal international commerce. Energy, like other products, flows not to the country that produced it, but to interlinked, competitive international supply chains.

And if we are concerned that sometime in the future, some sort of breakdown in international commerce should indeed cause us to have to depend on our own internal supplies – what then? Wouldn’t it be better, until that unhappy day may come, to use all the supplies we can get from other countries, and preserve our own? Why should we think it preserves our “energy independence” to use all the supplies we can dig up in the United States as quickly as possible?

In fact, energy security is enhanced not by energy independence, but by well-diversified energy interdependence. That, not energy independence, is a better goal.