Shattering The Energy Independence Myth

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We are often told that energy independence is a matter of national security. In an opinion piece published in the New York Times on February 22, two authors suggest energy independence for the US is not about pumping more oil and gas. It is about pushing the renewable energy and EV revolutions forward.

Who are these authors? One is Dennis Blair, a retired naval officer who served his country as commander in chief of the US Pacific Command. He was a director of national intelligence during the Obama administration and is currently the head of the energy security group SAFE. His co-author is Joseph Dunford, who also has an impressive resumé. He served as commandant of the Marine Corps before becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Today he is resident senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. These guys are not lightweights, in other words.

It is difficult to paraphrase the entire piece without squeezing all the juice out of it, so most of it appears exactly as written below. Not all wisdom can be compressed into a tweet, so I encourage you to read what these authors have to say and share your reaction with us in the comments section.

Ukraine & Energy Independence

Let’s begin with the conclusion of the Blair and Dunford article, which is entitled The West’s Delusion of Energy Independence. “Russia’s belligerence against Ukraine is underscoring once again the inextricable link between national security and energy security. Today, Russia is flexing its energy dominance over a dependent Europe. But tomorrow, the danger may come from China and its control over the raw materials that are key to a clean energy future. The United States and its allies must ensure that doesn’t happen.

“The situation facing Ukraine has demonstrated how quickly the dynamics of energy dependency can be turned against Western interests. To set the United States and its allies on a path of long-term national security, America must focus on supplying the energy it needs today while rapidly building out a renewables supply chain that is beholden to no single nation.”

The proof of the authors’ argument is supported by history. Many armed conflicts have involved access to oil and gas. That’s because most developed nations are utterly dependent on fossil fuels to power their economies. One of the factors that spurred Japan to attack its neighbors in Asia was its need for oil. Dust Up In The Desert I in Kuwait was all about oil. Dust Up In The Desert II in Iraq was also about oil. The American people were told by Dumb Donald Rumsfeld that Iraqi oil would pay for the entire escapade. Instead, it cost the US more than $3 trillion, with some estimates being much higher.

Seeing The World Clearly

The US continues to see the world through the prism of oil, but Blair and Dunford suggest it’s time to shift our focus to renewables. “In recent years America has been lulled into a false sense of energy independence. The shale revolution of the past decade has generated incredible supplies of vital natural gas and oil. European countries, blessed with diverse economies, have also felt relatively secure in recent years. But that is changing.

“Germany now depends on Russian suppliers for as much as two-thirds of its natural gas and the European Union for about 40 percent. And Germany, Europe’s largest economic force, until recently had appeared more hesitant than its peers to forcefully confront the Kremlin as it phases out its nuclear power plants. Now Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said Germany will halt certification of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that would link his country with Russia. How the Kremlin will react is unclear, as is whether Germany will stay the course over time. Moscow sees Europe’s energy dependence for what it is: a supply chain dynamic it can control and exploit at will (emphasis added).

“In the United States, gasoline prices have reached levels not seen since 2014. America is still bound to international oil markets that have grown increasingly nervous at the unpredictability of Russia, a key global oil producer. While U.S. policymakers scramble to find the usual Band-Aids, consumers and businesses are once again being stung by rising prices at the pump. America’s recently self-proclaimed “energy independence” is a lot more interdependent than advertised.”

Energy Security & Energy Reality

“Are the United States and its allies adequately focused on the risks of today’s energy reality? Have they positioned themselves for a future in which they have ready access to the raw materials essential to emerging technologies? The answer is no — they are at risk of being usurped by adversaries. And perhaps the biggest threat ahead is China. The United States and its allies are making strides to harness diverse and clean energy sources like wind, solar and hydrogen. They are smartly deploying electric vehicles to end our dependence on oil and its market-controlling cartel. Increases in battery efficiency are helping to encourage both trends.

“But the danger of the electric vehicle transition especially is that it will convert America’s current vulnerability to oil and gas markets to dependence on a supply chain for critical minerals for advanced batteries that is now controlled by and flows through China. Over a decade ago, China made a strategic decision to corner the world of electrification. It made substantial investments in the manufacture of batteries and the assembly of electric vehicles, as well as in the mining and processing of minerals vital for EVs.

“As of 2020, Chinese firms controlled more than 60 percent of the world’s lithium and nickel refining and over 70 percent of cobalt refining, according to a report prepared by the consulting firm Roland Berger for SAFE [no citation to that report is given], the energy security group that one of us chairs. These are essential for lithium ion batteries used in electric vehicles.

“The same report found that U.S. companies account for only 4 percent of lithium, 1 percent of nickel and zero percent of cobalt refining. Further along this supply chain, Chinese companies produce 41 percent of the cathodes and 71 percent of the anodes used in E.V. batteries. The United States produces essentially none of these key components. The bottom line is that the United States now depends heavily on supply chains from nations that do not share our interests and values. Policymakers must heed this risk or risk being held hostage by these nations.”

What The US Should Be Doing

“As a starting point, the United States should make sure that its traditional energy sources comply with the most stringent environmental standards. It also must be willing to invest in domestic mining, deep sea mineral collection and the processing of these essential raw materials. With advances in industrial technology, this can be done with comparatively minimal environmental impact. America must also work with other nations — Canada and Australia are examples — to develop alternatives to the current Chinese-dominated system. This will prevent China from cementing its position as a singular choke point.

“In addition, the United States should continue to support the development of electric vehicle assembly and battery cell manufacturing on its owns shores; otherwise competitors will establish an insurmountable lead. As of last year, 211 major battery factories were planned or under construction around the world; 12 were in the United States, 156 were in China.”

The Takeaway

Some who are familiar with history will recall that the United States helped tip the balance toward the Allies in World War II by outproducing the Axis powers. For every ship sunk, it made three more. For every tank destroyed, it made five more. For every airplane lost, it manufactured ten more. Today, America has sold off its vaunted production capacity to appease the gods of globalization and cheap foreign labor. That quest for profits has rendered America vulnerable. Whatever products are still manufactured within its borders are totally dependent on parts from other countries.

What Blair and Dunforth are saying is that the US has an inexhaustible supply of clean, renewable energy. If we truly crave energy independence, we must mine our own materials and manufacture our own goods. That way, we won’t have to kowtow to foreign countries who cut up their dissidents with bone saws in hotel rooms. We won’t have to knuckle under to dictators like Vladimir Putin when he rattles his sabers.

The renewable energy and EV revolutions are the key to energy independence, not fracking more wells or building more pipelines that leak toxic materials into the environment. If Blair and Dunford are correct, energy independence is within our grasp. We should seize the opportunity, and if doing so happens to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time, so much the better.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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