Ensuring Energy Security in an Unsecure World

by Emma Finkelstein

The central role energy has played in this summer’s international conflicts has generated renewed concern for US energy security. As the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) swept through northern Iraq capturing oil fields and refineries in early June, questions swirled around Iraq’s production capabilities and the future of international oil prices. Soon thereafter, tensions between Ukraine and Russia reached a fever pitch over natural gas prices. Russia is using energy as a weapon against Ukraine with European supply needs potentially caught in the crossfire.

But what does energy security actually mean in this international climate? And how can the US ensure its energy security and that of its allies?

The International Energy Agency (IEA) defines energy security as the “uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price.” There are three core components of this construct to explore further: reliable supply to consumers, availability of domestic and international energy sources, and comparative affordability.

A reliable supply requires the resilience of transmission mechanisms that distribute energy to residential, commercial, and industrial consumers. In the US, this refers to the network of generation plants, transformers, and power lines that crisscross the country. But the commercial electrical grid was not built with security in mind and represents a major vulnerability. As Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, extreme weather events can leave thousands without access to reliable power for weeks or months at a time, wreaking havoc on economic productivity and civil order. Additionally, military installations rely on this network to support training missions, intelligence gathering, and operations abroad, leaving our troops and national defense exposed in the event of a power outage.

Securing America’s energy resources is no easy task, and finding solutions will require a coordinated effort by stakeholders across all sectors of society.

The availability of energy sources is the aspect currently under intense scrutiny as conditions in Iraq and Ukraine continue to unravel. International conflict casts doubts on future energy production rates, which causes market fear, and drives up prices. This directly impacts the US because it relies upon energy imports from countries around the world, many in conflict-riddled regions. As a result, the US spends vast sums of money and diplomatic capital ensuring these trade lines are not disrupted. For example, the US spends approximately $67.5 billion annually protecting the global flow of oil.

Many claim that if America no longer had to buy energy from abroad, the affordability of energy would no longer be a concern. However, despite increasing domestic energy production utilizing new technologies like horizontal drilling and fracking and tapping new energy sources such as shale gas and oil sands, energy independence does not equate to energy security. Oil and natural gas are global commodities, and, as such, their prices are set by the international market. Even if the US produced all of its energy resources domestically, the cost of energy and energy production would still be susceptible to price shocks caused by international instability.

Securing America’s energy resources is no easy task, and finding solutions will require a coordinated effort by stakeholders across all sectors of society. Decreasing energy consumption on a national level would be the easiest step towards energy security, but Americans’ dependence on energy only continues to grow. Consequently, increasing energy efficiency must be prioritized. Resources from the Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory designed to help maximize energy efficiency should be expanded and publicized widely as ways individuals can save money and serve their country.

Additionally, government at the national, state, and local levels must invest in energy infrastructure resilience now to maintain system integrity for the future. This can entail efforts ranging from burying power lines to installing microgrids that function separately from the commercial grid in times of crisis. Recognizing this imperative, President Obama signed Executive Order 13653 in late 2013 establishing the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience to better cope with increasing extreme weather events.

Finally, and most importantly, the US must diversify its energy portfolio. This does not mean simply developing more import partnerships, but expanding investments in domestic renewable energy production. As a commodity separate from international markets, renewable energy is less susceptible to supply disruption or price shocks. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, most states, including Texas, Colorado, and West Virginia, have already enacted renewable portfolio standards (RPSs) and are implementing policies to meet renewable energy generation requirements. Policy standards at the national level would solidify this progress, put pressure on the remaining holdouts, and move the country towards energy security.

The current crises in Iraq and Ukraine have sharpened the focus on energy security for the moment, but its importance will not fade with time. In an increasingly uncertain and insecure world, America and its allies must invest in renewables and energy efficiency to secure the reliability, availability, and affordability of energy.