The many empty meanings of 'energy security'

We have talked about the concept of ‘energy security’ so much that it no longer means anything, Holland writes. It is time to retire the term.

Tennessee Valley Authority/AP/File
A cooling tower at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tenn. There are some very important questions about energy today, Holland writes, but we are doing a disservice to always talk about them in the context of ‘energy security.’

Meaningless Buzzword

I work on energy policy for a national security think tank, so I am often asked to talk about energy security. Last week, I participated in a conference in which we were asked to comment on “U.S. Energy Security: How Do We Get There?” As I listened to the presenters at the conference, I realized that how you viewed the problem of ‘Energy Security’ depends on how you identify it. We all seem to have determined that energy security is a problem, but we each had different understandings of what the term ‘energy security’ actually means! Of course, that means there were very different prescriptions for how to ‘solve’ the problems of ‘energy security.’

In the absence of a definition, everyone defines energy security differently –both speakers and listeners. It is something like the late Margaret Thatcher said about the politics of consensus: “it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.” Along those lines, I believe that ‘energy security’ has devolved into simply a buzzword: a phrase that everyone favors, but defines differently. Pundits, politicians, lobbyists, industry, and campaigners from across the political spectrum cry ‘energy security’ because it polls better than their preferred policies. I have done it as well. Listeners, then, are misled because, really, who could actually be against ‘energy security?’ It is like being against mom, America, and apple pie.

As the Years Roll On

API uses ‘energy security’ to argue that we need to open more land to drilling. Proponents of Keystone XL argue that we need a new pipeline from Canada because of ‘energy security.’ Environmentalists argue ‘energy security’ to tell us why we need to build more windmills and solar power. 

We all once agreed what energy security meant: in 1973 and 1979, oil price spikes caused by OPEC embargoes led to oil price controls and lines at the gas pump. Going even further back, amateur historians know that the lack of oil was crippling for the German war machine in the Second World War and that the Royal Navy had to protect its access to oil in Persia. So, we think that energy security means the ability to win wars and prevent shortages of energy.

However, the truth is that America and the world largely solved these problems of ‘energy security’ in the 1970s and 1980s by diversifying the world’s sources of oil, creating deep and liquid financial markets, and creating Strategic Petroleum Reserves in all OECD countries. Meanwhile, our rhetoric and vocabulary about energy security has not changed since then. Our energy debates are stuck in the shortages of the 1970s and the optimistic growth and low prices of 1980s. But – the problems of 2013 are not the problems of 30 or 40 years ago!

Retire the Outdated Term

It is time to retire the term ‘energy security.’ I am going to stop using it, and I am calling for other pundits to do so as well. Instead, we should all be more precise about what we are actually concerned with.

Are you afraid that dependence on foreign oil makes it more likely that we’re funding terrorism? Then you should be arguing to get off oil completely, because – in a fungible market any consumption drives up prices.

Are you worried that the prices of gasoline or electricity are too high, and that price spikes are harming our pocketbooks? Don’t cry ‘energy security’ – instead talk about energy affordability.

Have you read your history books closely and are worried that our military won’t have access to energy, like Winston Churchill was around the turn of the last century when the Royal Navy switched from (British-produced) coal to petroleum from oil fields of Persia? Don’t be – unlike the world of the early 20th Century, there is no conceivable scenario in which the U.S. military is unable to access the oil it needs to fight and win America’s wars.

Do you think that we need more clean energy production from wind and solar? Don’t say we need it for ‘energy security’ – be truthful and say we need more wind and solar because they are cleaner, with fewer polluting emissions.

Conclusion: Be Specific About the Real Issue

We have talked about the concept of ‘energy security’ so much that it no longer means anything. All of us writers should retire the term: it has become what George Orwell called a “dying metaphor” – a term which has“lost all evocative power and [is] merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”

More importantly, we should call-out politicians and policymakers when they talk about energy security: we should ask them what they’re hiding – and what they’re really worried about.

There are some very important questions about energy today – but we are doing a disservice to always talk about them in the context of ‘energy security.’ Instead, let’s have real arguments about energy affordability, the effects of energy imports on trade deficits or geopolitics, or the pollution that producing and burning energy creates.

We should argue about how the military uses energy – but we should not let history cloud our views about it: we are not going to have to drive through Stalingrad to access that energy. Viewing everything through a prism of ‘energy security’ has given us an obscured conversation about energy. Let’s talk about the real problems and get away from the buzzwords.

Source: Why I’m Done Talking About Energy Security

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