How the US Energy Boom Is Harming Foreign Policy
Rising oil and gas production close to home is enabling a more aggressive stance toward rivals abroad
Opponents of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline have focused largely on its disproportionate role in global warming. President Obama gave a nod to this concern last June, when he said he would deny approval for Keystone if research indicated that its completion would “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” (The president has final say in the matter because the proposed pipeline will cross an international boundary.) But proponents of Keystone—including some in the president’s inner circle—place great emphasis on its geopolitical value, claiming that it will enhance America’s economic prowess and reduce its vulnerability to overseas supply disruptions. Now, with the January 31 release of a State Department–mandated report alleging that construction of Keystone will not significantly increase global emissions because so much tar sands oil is being imported by rail and other means, it appears likely that this argument will prevail. But far from bolstering US security, this approach is bound to produce new risks and dangers.
That professions of national security would trump the future of the planet might seem absurd to many, but not to anyone who has followed the evolution of the administration’s strategic thinking. Initially, Obama’s principal international objectives were to withdraw from ground wars in the Middle East and refurbish the US image abroad. Energy played little role in this, except to burnish Obama’s status as an advocate for green technology. More recently, however, Obama has sought to counter the perceived decline in Washington’s global influence by any means available short of renewed military interventionism. An “all of the above” energy policy has come to be seen as a useful tool for this purpose. By procuring more of our energy from domestic and Canadian sources, the White House now says, the United States can free itself from dependence on Middle Eastern supplies and so exercise greater independence in its foreign policy.
This outlook has arisen in response to the application of advanced technologies like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract natural gas and oil from previously impenetrable shale formations. Before Obama’s first term, it was widely assumed that domestic oil production would continue its precipitous decline as a result of diminishing output from existing fields. A 2006 report by the Energy Information Administration, for example, predicted that US crude oil output would drop from 5.9 million barrels a day in 2010 to 4.6 million barrels in 2030. But the surge in oil and gas extraction from shale has upended all such assumptions. In January, the EIA projected that domestic crude production would rise through 2030 by 0.8 million barrels a day—with most of the added output coming from shale oil.
At the same time, Canadian firms—with considerable foreign assistance—began to extract substantial amounts of synthetic crude from previously noncommercial bitumen deposits (“tar sands” or “oil sands”) in the Athabasca region of Alberta. According to the EIA, Canadian oil output will jump from 3.6 million barrels per day in 2010 to 6.6 million barrels in 2035. Combine this added Canadian output with rising US production, and it is possible to picture a not-too-distant time when the United States will be almost entirely free of reliance on Asian and African oil—something US strategists have dreamed of for decades.
There are obstacles, of course, to the realization of this dream. Because tar sands oil is so much richer in carbon than conventional petroleum and requires more energy to extract (thereby producing additional emissions), environmental groups like 350.org and Friends of the Earth are trying to block construction of pipelines like Keystone XL that would carry this dirty fuel into and across the United States. Also, the current boom in shale oil output could fade as the richest “plays” in Texas and North Dakota are exhausted. But all this is less important than the political implications of the boom—in particular, the emergence of a national discourse about the energy-fueled “revitalization” of America.
“US energy is changing the world again,” proclaimed a 2012 Financial Times commentary on the subject by energy analyst and industry consultant Daniel Yergin: “American energy independence, for decades the preserve of quixotic rhetoric, has become a serious prospect thanks to the resurgence in US oil and gas output.” Whether or not that happens, Yergin added, “what is unfolding in the US will continue to change its economy and affect both international relations and the global energy outlook.”
For Yergin and others who share this outlook, the explosion in energy output bolsters the nation’s geopolitical stature in several ways. First, it provides low-cost hydrocarbons for energy-intensive industries like cement manufacturing and aluminum smelting, thus sparking a “new industrial revolution” and strengthening the US economy. More important, it helps liberate this country from constrictive ties to foreign despots. In a February 2013 letter to President Obama, members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs argued that the Keystone XL pipeline would “advance our national security” by “providing secure access to petroleum from Canada” and rendering the United States “less vulnerable to political and security-related disruptions of our energy supply.”
These arguments appear to have had an especially strong influence on Tom Donilon, who served as the president’s national security adviser until last June. The dramatic increase in domestic oil production has two profound “geostrategic impacts,” he told an audience at Columbia University last April. First, it “will directly strengthen the nation’s economy…send[ing] a powerful message that the United States has the resources, as well as the resolve, to remain the world’s pre-eminent power for years to come.” Second, “America’s new energy posture allows us to engage from a position of greater strength. Increasing US energy supplies act as a cushion that helps reduce our vulnerability to global supply disruptions and price shocks. It also affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.”
This is pure, unadulterated geopolitics—of a sort that would be familiar to the likes of, say, Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. It would, at first glance, seem out of place in the Obama White House, with its (public) discourse on new, collaborative modes of international behavior. Given Washington’s declining clout abroad, however, it is easy to see how this energy-based outlook—call it “petro-machismo”—would find support at the White House.
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That Obama has embraced this approach is evident from his words as well as his actions. In his September 2013 speech before the UN General Assembly, for example, he indicated that despite reduced US reliance on Middle Eastern energy, the United States would continue to exercise ultimate control over oil exports from the Persian Gulf. “The world still depends on the region’s energy supply, and a severe disruption could destabilize the entire global economy,” he declared. Accordingly, the United States—and presumably no one else—“will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world.”
Reduced US reliance on Middle Eastern oil has empowered the president to push for increasingly severe sanctions on Iran—without fear of a global oil-price shock arising from Iranian attacks on petroleum shipping. As part of its drive to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear weapons program, Donilon explained at Columbia, “the United States engaged in tireless diplomacy to persuade consuming nations to end or significantly reduce their consumption of Iranian oil…. The substantial increase in oil production in the United States and elsewhere meant that international sanctions and US and allied efforts could remove over 1 million barrels per day of Iranian oil while minimizing the burdens on the rest of the world.”
The impact of petro-machismo is also increasingly apparent in US relations with China. Between now and 2040, the EIA predicts, US oil imports will fall from 9.5 million barrels per day to 6.9 million, while China’s will rise from 5.0 million barrels to 14.2 million. This is a strategic vulnerability for China that the Obama administration avidly seeks to exploit. The much ballyhooed “pivot,” entailing a shift in the deployment of American military and diplomatic efforts from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, is essentially a naval strategy, with the allocation of US naval assets switching from a 50/50 distribution between the Atlantic and Pacific to a 40/60 distribution favoring the latter. Much of this added sea power will be concentrated in the Indian Ocean and the East and South China seas—the major maritime thoroughfares through which China receives its imports.
By seeking to control these waters, Obama is sending a clear message to Beijing: we are becoming less dependent on imported oil, so we enjoy “a stronger hand” (to use Donilon’s words) in international relations. You are becoming more reliant on imports, and are in the unfortunate position of having to rely on supply routes that are controlled by the US Navy.
However subtly expressed, this message has been well understood by the Chinese, which helps explain their drive to build new oil and gas pipelines to Russia and Central Asia and their growing investment in advanced naval capabilities. These actions have also led to greater strategic cooperation between Beijing and Moscow, as evident in China’s stepped-up purchases of advanced Russian weaponry and the two countries’ joint participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a mutual security pact encompassing most of Central Asia.
Proponents of Keystone XL have sought to exploit the growing Sino-American rivalry by claiming that failure to build the pipeline will prompt Canada to sell its tar sands oil to China—something Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has threatened to do. Disapproval of Keystone, the House Foreign Affairs committee members suggested in their letter to Obama, will “enhance the fortunes of economic rivals, as Chinese state-owned oil companies and others race to secure permanent access to North American energy sources.”
What additional forms petro-machismo will take in the coming years cannot be foreseen. There is little doubt, however, that growing US reliance on domestic and Canadian energy—with the possibility of significant exports looming on the horizon—is affecting the tone and character of US foreign policy.
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For those who despair at Washington’s diminished strength abroad, there is much to applaud in this fresh burst of geopolitical vigor. Proponents of expanded US liquefied natural- gas exports, for example, argue that such sales will help undercut Russia’s dominant position in the European gas market and decrease its political clout—a stance that will no doubt be given added vigor in response to Russia’s recent moves in Crimea.
It would be exceedingly unwise, however, for US policy-makers to equate an increase in domestic oil output with a blank check to bully China, Russia and other rivals. The Chinese and Russians are, in fact, worried about the geopolitical implications of increased US energy output, and are taking steps to address this concern—the Chinese by importing more oil and gas by land, the Russians by selling more of their energy to Asia. Neither, however, is likely to be intimidated by Washington: if anything, they are likely to react antagonistically and to seek means for countering any perceived US advantage—in ways that could prove highly dangerous for all. Growing Chinese naval assertiveness in the East and South China seas is one obvious response to the pivot strategy; stronger military ties between China and Russia are another. In the end, Washington will find it harder to advance its security interests in these areas, not easier.
We should be wary of embracing the argument that an increase in US and Canadian energy production automatically translates into renewed geopolitical advantage, giving the president leeway to behave more aggressively in the international arena. Machismo is bad enough in male-female relations, but it is far worse in international relations—especially when it involves behavior that is seen as threatening to the vital interests of rival states, prompting them to engage in risky countermoves.
There is a message for environmentalists here as well. The environmental arguments against Keystone XL and other such endeavors are well-known: completion of the pipeline and/or expansion of the rail lines carrying tar sands oil to the United States will increase the emissions of greenhouse gases and pose a severe threat to the nation’s farmland, water and human safety. The national security aspects of the debate are less familiar—at least outside the universe of think tanks and lobbying groups that are loudly trumpeting the geopolitical advantages of increased North American energy output. To succeed in the national debate, environmental activists must deconstruct these claims and highlight their flaws. This means, in particular, showing that prioritizing geopolitics over the environment ensures neither increased security nor a healthy economy.
By encouraging overseas adventurism, the pursuit of geopolitical advantage through energy independence creates an increased threat to US national security. The more that Keystone XL and fracking are defined as geopolitical assets, the greater the risk that rival powers will seek countervailing measures to offset any perceived US advantage. Similarly, plans to boost US exports of shale oil and gas could benefit US allies but raise fuel prices at home. The same is also true for the expected increase in exports of refined products made from all those tar sands imported from Canada.
But more important are the national security consequences of increased greenhouse gas emissions resulting from greater reliance on fossil fuels—especially carbon-dense fuels like bitumen. By accelerating the pace of emissions, increased consumption of bitumen will ensure that climate change occurs with even greater fury than previously assumed, posing an intensified threat to the safety and survival of US cities, farms, forests and coastlines. No other challenge we face even comes close in severity, scale and proximity. To speak of a “national security” benefit from Keystone XL is to open the gates to national devastation and ruin.
© 2014 The Nation