Sunday, February 3, 2008

Energy Security: Here we go again...

So just what is it these people are referring to, when they refer to "energy security"?

Michael Klare is perhaps the leading academic currently engaged with "energy security", at least as it pertains to national and military concerns - that is, to traditional conceptions of "security". But "energy security is different. As Klare suggests in a recent article, ES may most readily be seen in terms of "the uninterrupted acquisition of adequate petroleum to satisfy national requirements". In this context we might even afford a quote to G.W. Bush, who refers to the priorities of a new national "strategy", among the goals of which is "to ensure a steady supply of affordable energy for America’s homes and businesses and industries.” (1). That is, energy security is a matter of both supply and price.

It may seem that, in a position of "security", the fact of scarcity is not an issue. Scarcity, of course, will necessarily drive up prices according to supply constraints, and affordability must be relative to various economic factors. Somehow, this mechanism is not to function in an energy secure condition. We might presume that the vision of "security" entails a promise of actual supply not being constrained. This, of course, is (excuse the pun) a pipe-dream. Supply is always constrained by some factors. The "cheapness" of oil in previous years (and even now) is relative: if we can afford oil, it is thereby affordable. But it is by and large less affordable for many than it was three years ago. (And even then, for some, it was not affordable.) Security must clearly be seen as a far more calculated quality, a matter of "more secure", or "less". And of course, "scarcity" too is a relative term. ("There's plenty of oil, so long as you can pay for it.")

Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, interviewing Frederick Smith (founder of FedEx), who expresses a belief that
The country's continued and increasing dependence on imported petroleum has created an enormous economic and national-security risk probably second only to terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
This "security risk" extends to a threat to both the US Economy and "our national security situation", due especially to price rises. (Fareed Zakaria, "A Marine’s New Mission", NEWSWEEK,
Feb 11, 2008.) The question of affordability, which is already related to a question of supply, is clearly an issue for "economic security".

Equally interesting is Smith's attention to the military aspects, and the place of energy in history:
It shouldn't be forgotten that the proximate cause of World War II was the U.S. oil embargo against Japan, when we were an oil-exporting nation. And World War II was largely won in Europe by the United States' attack on the fuel supplies of Germany. In fact, they were making more Messerschmitt fighter planes in late 1944 and early 1945 than anywhere else in the world—they simply didn't have the fuel to train the pilots to fly them. The first gulf war was caused totally by oil—it was Saddam Hussein's insistence that he own certain oilfields that led to his invasion of Kuwait and our ouster of his forces there. The subsequent presence of the United States in the Middle East was in large measure driven by the protection of the oil trade. And a lot of analysts think that as much as 40 percent of the entire U.S. military budget can be attributed to protecting the oil trade.

As Zakaria notes, Smith is a member of the Energy Security Leadership Council, "a group of transportation executives and retired military officers advocating greater American energy independence." The Council's website notes that Smith is in fact co-Chair.

Interesting bunch here. The Council, codenamed SAFE ("Securing America's Future Energy") is composed of a number of transport-oriented businesspersons (FedEx, UPS), and a whole lot of retired military heads. They made headlines in 2005 with a oil-disruption simulation that the Washington Post sat up and noticed:

The United States would be all but powerless to protect the American economy in the face of a catastrophic disruption of oil markets, high-level participants in a war game concluded yesterday. (John Mintz, "Outcome Grim at Oil War Game: Former Officials Fail to Prevent Recession in Mock Energy Crisis", Washington Post Friday, June 24, 2005; Page A19)

And if you thought the alternatives would be entirely benign in terms of "security", the UK's Ministry of Defence has called the large offshore windfarms "a threat to national security", due to their interference with radar operations.

Giving evidence to a planning inquiry last October, a senior MoD expert said that the turbines create a hole in radar coverage so that aircraft flying overhead are not detectable. In written evidence, Squadron Leader Chris Breedon said: “This obscuration occurs regardless of the height of the aircraft, of the radar and of the turbine.” He described the discovery as alarming.


(1) Michael Klare, "The Futile Pursuit of 'Energy Security' by Military Force", Brown Journal of World Affairs 13 (1), (Spring/Summer 2007): 139-153.

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