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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Energy Interdependence
distributed 9/28/12 - ©2012

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Reid Detchon of Bethesda, Maryland. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

"Energy independence" is a recurring phrase in this year's presidential election. Actually, it has been a recurring political phrase ever since the era of Richard Nixon.

These days, when I hear those words, the image that pops into my mind is of a two year old child who is rapidly learning new skills and gaining a new sense of self-identity. Offer to help her with a task like pulling on her socks or buttoning a shirt, and she will pull back and angrily assert, "I Can Do It All By Myself!" (She can't write yet, but the capital letters come though clearly.)

Independence -- for a two year old and for national energy policy -- is a mixed bag. There are some aspects of doing it yourself that are wonderful, and there are other pieces that are foolish and dangerous.

As people of faith -- people who understand our global community in terms of grace, sufficiency, justice and long-term sustainability -- we can start to sort through the confusion of this political jargon, and begin to tease out the positives and negatives. From such a perspective, there is probably greater value is a slightly different term, with three additional letters that change the emphasis: "energy interdependence".

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There is no one, tidy, agreed-upon definition of "energy independence". The Energy Collective says, "Depending on an individual's position, debate about energy independence can readily become disjointed, resulting in two reasonably intelligent individuals just talking past each other." Their website describes the spread of meaning given to the term, and "briefly highlights some of the fundamental differences between the two Presidential candidate's energy plans" -- perhaps with a slight bias toward the Romney approach. (Want to go straight to the source? Here are the energy pages from Democrats.org and MittRomney.com.)

Energy independence, in all of its various forms, is more than a plank in the political platforms. It is a vision that has broad appeal to many of us, and it has -- or it can have -- some genuinely positive qualities.

  • It calls on us to live within our means. Rather than importing vast amounts of oil (because, really, the conversation is often about oil independence), we'd need to get our consumption and production of energy into a closer balance. That could be accomplished by dramatic reductions in our energy use, and by a shift to renewable energy sources. The recent agreement on much more demanding fuel efficiency standards for cars, for example, is one way to reduce oil consumption.
  • If most of our energy is produced domestically, then we're not funding a batch of oil-producing governments who's policies and attitudes we don't like, and we wouldn't have to fight wars in unstable parts of the world to protect "our" oil. (Unfortunately, we'd probably still be adding to the wealth of lots of multi-national corporations.)
  • If we were not importing so much oil, we would not be so complicit in the horrible pollution and the injustice of oil production in places like the Niger Delta.

But the call for independence also has many implications that can be very negative.

  • Sometimes, there is no attention given to reducing or transforming our energy consumption. There's an assumption that the goal of independence can be reached simply by jacking up domestic (or North American) production -- bluntly expressed in the 2008 election with "Drill, baby, drill!" Trying to fueling our nation's increasing demands through domestic production alone leads to demands for drilling everywhere: in suburban neighborhoods, deep oceans and the fragile Arctic. (Both presidential candidates are advocating expanded drilling.) Listen carefully to whether the goal is described as US independence, or whether Canada and Mexico are included in the accounting. The North American language allows the use of Canadian tar sands, and the Keystone XL pipeline, to count as part of our independence.
  • Trying to achieve independence in the short term can lead to a rush to tap all available sources as quickly as possible, whether or not that makes long term sense. We see that in the recently proclaimed "good news" that, because of fracking technologies, US oil production just reached a 15-year high. We also see it in the "Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007" which mandated the production of ethanol and biofuels -- and which is now widely seen as a foolish policy in terms of food security, agricultural policy, and even energy production.
  • The call for energy independence often ignores the fact that fossil fuels are commodities in a global marketplace. Increased domestic oil production has not led to lower oil prices in the US. (Natural gas prices, though, have plummeted with a surge in supply, because gas is not as easily shipped around the world.) A shift away from coal in the US hasn't reduced coal mining much, but it has led to increased exports. Most of the fuel distilled from Canadian tar sands would be shipped overseas, just as oil from northern Alaskan fields is often shipped to Asia.

"Energy independence" sounds great as a political sound-bite, but it is a mixed bag when it comes to developing coherent and positive strategies. As I look at the current political scene, the negative aspects of reckless production seem to overwhelm any positives about reduced impacts.

Instead of a vague and misleading slogan, we need to hold firmly to the potential positive sides of independence -- with a goal of reducing consumption and transforming production -- and to mix that with the recognition that we're part of a global society drawing on a finite pool of fossil fuels. Those two goals are better expressed in the term "energy interdependence."

In 2006, the British ambassador to US, Sir David Manning, said, "We need to recognize that there is no such thing as energy independence. Instead we face the inevitability of energy interdependence." A couple of years later, a long and still-timely article in Mother Jones, The Seven Myths of Energy Independence, said:

Put another way, the 'debate' over energy independence is not only disingenuous, it's also a major distraction from the much more crucial question -- namely, how we're going to build a secure and sustainable energy system. Because what America should be striving for isn't energy independence, but energy security -- that is, access to energy sources that are reliable and reasonably affordable, that can be deployed quickly and easily, yet are also safe and politically and environmentally sustainable.

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A two year old rejoices in the emerging possibility of independence, of being able to "do it myself" instead of depending on others to do everything. For a growing child, that movement into independent action is a wonderful part of human development. Taken to an extreme, though, a life-long quest for independence leads to either isolation or denial about the reality of living in community.

In this year's political campaigns, and in longer-term discussions about energy policy, be cautious and suspicious about the goal of energy independence. Look for, and demand, more detailed and appropriate expressions that include perspectives such as energy conservation, energy security and energy interdependence. Those principles are what we need to take us toward a just and sustainable future.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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