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"The Entanglement of Energy, Grand Strategy, and International Security"

"The Entanglement of Energy, Grand Strategy, and International Security"

Book Chapter, The Handbook of Global Energy Policy, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd

May 2013

Author: Meghan L. O'Sullivan, Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Geopolitics of Energy Project



Americans are pleasantly surprised about how their energy fate appears to have changed, in such a short time, with little notice or anticipation. Within the last five years, both actual US production of oil and gas and projections for future American production have changed dramatically. Whereas in the mid-2000s, experts predicted that the US should anticipate a future of severe dependence on imported natural gas, in 2012 Washington is debating the pros and cons of becoming an exporter of this resource. Even more quietly, domestic production of oil has increased, in large part due to the development of the tight oil in the Bakken formation in North Dakota and the Eagle Ford in Texas.

Innovation and technology deserve the credit for this transformation. The evolution of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has enabled the development of both oil and gas in locations where the resource was known to exist, but the prospects for extraction at commercial prices had previously seemed remote. These domestic advances are complemented by new energy developments among America’s neighbors in the Western Hemisphere. Canada is set to double its production from its oil sands in the coming years, while Brazil is planning to embark on the development of vast sub-salt deepwater oil resources.

There is no question that these energy developments have major economic benefits to the United States. Inexpensive natural gas has spurred a revival in American manufacturing; diminished oil imports are shrinking the trade deficit and will strengthen the dollar; and both oil and gas revivals will bolster employment in direct and indirect ways. But much has also been made of the security benefits that accrue and will continue to accrue to the United States on account of this boom. President Barack Obama has underscored the salubrious effects of these energy shifts for America’s strategic position; former CIA director Jim Woolsey sees the energy revolution precipitating a rebalancing of America in the world.

But how exactly should we think about these domestic energy developments in the context of energy security? Much depends on how energy security is defined. Traditionally, energy security referred to having access to sufficient supplies at a reasonable price. Energy security was largely perceived to be a notion of relevance to consuming or net importing countries. Access, supply, and affordability were the key concepts. By this traditional, basic definition, the recent revolution in domestic shale gas and tight oil most certainly make the US significantly more energy secure. Imports of oil and gas have dropped markedly, at least in part due to these developments. Gas imports fell from 4.3 billion cubic feet (bcf) in 2005 to 3.5 bcf in 2011. Similarly net oil imports fell from their peak of 12.5 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2005 to 8.4 mbd in 2011, the lowest absolute value since 1995. Moreover, the composition of these imports is likely to be comforting to Americans who examine it; 49% of crude oil imports and 89% of gas imports originate from America’s neighbors.

The concept of energy security has been modified in recent years to include additional dimensions. Some rightly point out that consumers are not the only ones concerned with energy security; security of demand is as legitimate a preoccupation as security of supply to a country which reaps a significant portion of its national revenues from energy exports. Moreover, security of transit is a concept important to both consumers and producers. Secure infrastructure and transport routes are essential if accessible, affordable energy is to make it to its destination. Again, on these counts, America’s energy boom seems to check the energy security box, and oil from Canada is certain to be less vulnerable to disruption than supplies that need to snake their way through the Bosporus or the Straits of Hormuz.

However, an even more sophisticated definition of energy security could go beyond these ideas to posit that being energy secure means having access to affordable energy without having to contort one’s political, security, diplomatic, or military arrangements unduly. Is a country really energy secure if obtaining adequate energy supplies is dependent on a particular expensive, high risk, and limiting (in terms of opportunity cost) posture in the world? By this standard, recent energy developments may or may not make America fundamentally more energy secure. If such energy trends enable it to scale back its military presence in the Middle East, or allow it to be less vulnerable to political shocks in other parts of the world, or grant it a substantially freer hand in the pursuit of other foreign policy goals, then such energy developments would make America more energy secure in the fullest sense of the concept. While it is conceivable that the revolution in American energy could have these effects, it is not yet obvious this will be the case.

The purpose of this chapter is to look at the broader interplay between energy and security and the multiple ways in which the two concepts interact. It may be more useful to think about the “geopolitics of energy” rather than “energy security,” with all its current associations. The chapter will offer a framework for thinking about the overlap between energy and security as it relates to “hard” national security issues, not economic or environmental ones. Because of the nearly infinite number of contemporary issues that inhabit this intersection, the chapter draws primarily from oil and gas in its illustrations, given the dominance of those fuel sources in the global energy mix. This is by no means to deny the importance of security issues associated with other energy sources, such as nuclear energy, or the possibility of complex interactions between security and renewable energies.

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For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

O'Sullivan, Meghan. "The Entanglement of Energy, Grand Strategy, and International Security." Chap. 2 in The Handbook of Global Energy Policy. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, May 2013.

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