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Away from energy independence, and towards energy freedom

danps's picture

Two of the more loaded words in contemporary politics are independence and freedom. Despite their similarities in meaning they get used in very different ways. Independence is used in a more national sense, which might be natural because of its prominence in what is arguably our founding document. It doesn't seem like it is possible to disparage independence in our discourse. Even a word like patriotism, while generally well regarded, has qualifications. Independence is all good though, so anything you can attach to it is improved by the association.

This has played out for years now with the much-invoked phrase "energy independence." The latest calls for it began in the wake of 9/11 as a way to argue for policies that would remove our need to import oil from abroad. It made sense on the face of it: We send our money to oil-rich states, states that in some cases fund groups hostile to America. Buy from them and you're funding the terrorists, went the argument. (This is simply a description of what leaders put out for public consumption, not an endorsement of it.)

The initial prescriptions for energy independence were relatively full, or at least fuller than they would become. An increase in domestic production was the favored proposal, but was supplemented with calls to encourage conservation and discourage consumption. As late as the spring of 2008 it was possible for a conservative in good standing like Charles Krauthammer to call for a heavy tax on gasoline. But by that fall Michael Steele made the infamous call to drill baby drill, and from then on it was all about resource extraction.

The curiously elusive goal of energy independence is now being pursued through fracking, or so its proponents claim. There is lots of natural gas just waiting to be forced up to the surface of the earth, we are told. In fact, the Barnett Shale in Texas has enough reserves to supply Texas for the next 200 years. There's also enough nationwide to supply America for the next 200 years. And 200 years for China! And India! The world! It's the fossil fuel equivalent of Ulysses Everett McGill's geographical oddity.

Of course, abundance does not mean independence - at least not long term. That only happens if we take some additional steps. For instance, any resource vital enough to merit a policy of independence is too precious to export. We should flat out ban the removal of any item that receives such an important designation. Selling it to foreigners is downright seditious, isn't it? Doesn't doing so hinder our quest for energy independence? We should be keeping it all here. Yet the industry is doing just the opposite - pushing for new ways to get it out of the country. Why does the oil and gas industry hate America?1

Similarly, we should create a substantial strategic reserve of any such resource. If natural gas truly is so important to America's future then it is reckless to deprive ourselves of a great store of it in case of emergency. And of course there's Krauthammer's price floor proposal. We should just set a minimum price on it and levy whatever tax is necessary to reach that level.

The fact that none of the people making all the noise about energy independence are taking such a comprehensive view on the issue can only be explained a few ways, none of them flattering. Have they not thought the issue through? Are they uninterested in thinking about it beyond empty slogans? Or is the noble-sounding "energy independence" really just a cynical euphemism for catering to a favored political constituency? Those who trumpet energy independence should be expected to either address these issues or lose credibility.

From a citizen's perspective, the current vision of energy independence might be a bit of a mixed blessing. What price should we be willing to pay to achieve this? Aside from the environmental impact of ongoing fossil fuel dependence(!), what good does it do the average person to give preferential treatment to wildly profitable industries?2 Or ones that cripple the democratic process? If you trade rule by a tyrannical king for rule by soulless plutocrats how much have you really gained? This might be a kind of independence we would be better off without.

Freedom, unlike independence, drags a little bit of freight behind it. Over the past few years it has become a rallying cry of the right, invoked in absurd ways (Fox link!) to decry just about anything conservatives don't like. That has made it something of an object of ridicule on the left; this link should give you a decent look at whatever the outrage du jour is in the fever swamps.

The debasing of the word freedom is a shame, because it can be very useful to liberals in some cases - like energy. Energy independence may not be all it's cracked up to be, but energy freedom could be very appealing. The idea of individuals enjoying energy freedom could draw primarily on distributed generating capacity. Household generation of electricity through wind and solar energy, aside from the environmental impact of ramping up the use of renewables(!), promises huge benefits.

The main one is reducing dependence on the grid. Our model has always worked on centralized generation, and the obvious flaw with that approach is that it has a single point of failure. If the power plant, and all the pieces connecting it to your house, are not up and running, you've got no electricity. The ability to supplement the grid with local generating capacity would not just save money, it would give families a form of backup - maybe compromised or lower scale but still usable - during outages.

That might be a modest convenience when a spring thunderstorm downs a line, but it could be much more than that in the aftermath of a major event. What if in the wake of a Katrina or Sandy people in the affected areas had some electricity during daylight hours? It's not as good as being fully operational, but it could be the difference between remaining at home and being a refugee.

(A hurricane obviously might rip off solar panels or crash turbines, but any generating capacity retained is better than none. And maybe these local generators could be engineered with redundancy and durability in mind for just such an occasion.)

People who enjoy energy freedom, as opposed to energy independence, would see direct benefits. Instead of a long, convoluted and dubious process that somehow ends up enriching industry executives more than anyone else, we would see direct monetary benefits to ourselves. It would also serve the very national security that energy independence types love to trumpet: An electrical grid with distributed generation is far more robust than a centralized one - and incidentally is far better able to recover from the occasional whoopsie. We've had empty talk about energy independence for decades. It's time for some substantive action on energy freedom.


1. See how patriotic I am?

2. By the way, shouldn't the production of such a vital resource be done by the state and not private companies?

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