On March 30, with prices at the pump surging toward four bucks a gallon, President Barack Obama strode to a podium at Georgetown University to deliver what the White House had billed as a major speech. The president’s message was simple: the time had come, he said, to “get serious about a long-term policy for a secure, affordable energy future.”
Obama went on to offer a hallmark centrist vision – a little energy efficiency here, some renewables and alternative fuels there, plus a dash of carefully expanded domestic oil production – that impressed neither climate-change worrywarts nor the drill-baby-drill crowd. But it did accomplish one thing: It kept alive the uninterrupted streak of presidents emphasizing the importance of energy security.
Energy security is the issue that always gets rhetorically addressed, but never solved. It was born of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, which – as the story goes – awakened the American public to the shattering possibility that whatever blessings God had bestowed upon the nation, cheap gas forever might not be one of them.
Richard Nixon responded to the embargo by outlining a strategy for freeing the country from dependence on foreign oil. His successor, Gerald Ford, did likewise, and on down the line it went. Republican, Democrat, it didn’t matter: like Bill Murray continually waking up to find it was Groundhog Day, with every new president we woke up to find a new strategy for solving the energy security dilemma. It’s enough to make you wonder if “energy security” wasn’t dreamed up by Washington think tanks, all of which boast rosters of experts devoted to producing chart-filled reports aimed, ultimately, at untethering the United States from Middle East petro tyrants.
This perennial promise points to the energy security debate’s sustaining raison d’etre – a U.S. transportation system built on the expectation of ready access to cheap oil. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the transportation sector accounts for some two-thirds of the oil used in the United States. And around half of that oil comes from foreign sources. This, the energy security establishment argues, puts us at risk, and in a number of ways.
First, like all commodities, oil has its up and downs, and price shocks can be debilitating to the economy, at least in the short term. Even parties profiting from the recent run-up in prices, brought on by “Arab Spring” instability in the Middle East, worry about oil becoming too expensive. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal said recently that his country would prefer a crude oil price in the range of $70 to $80 a barrel, rather than the triple-digit levels that have prevailed. The reason? They want to keep us hooked on the stuff.
“We don’t want the West to go and find alternatives,” the nephew of Saudi King Abdullah said on CNN. “The higher the price of oil goes, the more they have incentives to go and find alternatives.”
There’s widespread agreement, as well, that heavy reliance on foreign oil skews U.S. foreign policy from the country’s stated values of promoting democracy and human rights. As Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently opined, the longstanding U.S. message to Middle East regimes has been to “keep your pumps open, your oil prices low, don’t bother the Israelis too much and, as far as we’re concerned, you can do whatever you want out back.”