Energy Security Breakdown: How Thorny It Is

While Taylor backs opening more public lands to drilling, he thinks Republicans overstate the benefits of doing so, and points to the work of economist Robert Hahn to support his argument. Hahn found there would a net economic gain from drilling in the outer continental shelf and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – he put the value at $1.7 trillion – but noted that doing so would “lower the price of crude by just 1.3 percent, which few consumers would even detect against the background noise of the weekly ups and downs of fuel prices.”

Slocum says this is all the more reason to invest massively in renewables. He argues this case in frequent appearances on television and radio programs – often times opposite Taylor. Still, he sounds less than optimistic. Even as he chides the president for not going far enough in support of renewables in his March address, Slocum allows that, in some ways, the point might be moot.

“We’re very stuck in the status quo,” he said. “There’s a structural problem with Congress. There’s no institutional leadership. Industry lobbyists have far too much power. The rules of the Senate require compromise. As important as everyone seems to agree energy security is, it’s very difficult to do anything that addresses the long-term challenges. ”

Image via U.S. Marines Corps

But when there is a fight over energy policy, you can be sure that energy security will be invoked. Consider a measure now before the House of Representatives, HR 1380, dubbed the New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act, or NAT-GAS. The bill would offer tax credits for the purchase of long-haul trucks powered by natural gas, the plentiful and increasingly accessible cleaner-burning fossil fuel. Under the legislation, companies such as UPS would get an $80,000 tax credit on the purchase of a $195,000 natural-gas truck, the Wall Street Journal reported. A similar diesel-powered truck costs about $95,000.

Guess what the bill’s champions, led by T. Boone Pickens, cite as a leading rationale for passing the bill? “Their argument is about energy security,” the Journal said. “Recent discoveries of massive natural-gas troves from Texas to Pennsylvania mean the country is newly awash in the fuel.”

When Pickens first began promoting natural gas a few years ago he had many environmentalists on his side, but since then serious questions have been raised about the climate benefits of natural gas vs. diesel, as well as about the environmental impact of the drilling process, known as fracking, that is used to release it from shale formations. That’s why Slocum supports the tax-credits-for-trucks program only if it comes with strict drilling regulation.

Slocum sees environmental issues, including global warming, as key aspects of the energy security discussion. This puts him in the same camp as the U.S. military, which is embracing conservation and renewable energy in order to maintain combat readiness, but also recognizes climate change itself as a threat to national security. Many on the right disagree. Some deny the science; others simply ignore the issue. Most common, perhaps, is the approach outlined by Green, the American Enterprise Institute scholar. “Rather than remain largely focused on the quixotic effort to reduce (greenhouse gas) emissions or to stand athwart the stream of climate and shout ‘stop, enough!’ we should shift the majority of our policymaking attention to an agenda of resilience building and adaptation,” he advised in a paper entitled, “Climate Change: The Resilience Option.”

As hapless as this might sound, those on the left are no less discombobulated when it comes to the question of nuclear energy. Obama, in his speech, registered continued if measured support for nukes, earning plaudits from the Brookings wonks. Not that Brookings believes nuclear power is likely to grow significantly in the United States.  They think it’s too expensive for that to happen. But they do hope that optimistic words from the president might help keep other countries – the Chinese in particular – from ditching their plans for more atom-splitting and increasing their already significant reliance on coal.

All of which is a reminder that while, yes, the United States is the world’s biggest economy (at least for now), energy questions play out on a very large scale. “These are world markets and global forces we’re talking about,” said Taylor, the libertarian, suggesting that the quest for energy security might remain elusive.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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