The ongoing world energy crisis, which began in 2021 and has caused record price spikes for oil, natural gas and coal, seems to have proven for once and all that energy independence is a matter of national security. (Image source: iStock)
The ongoing world energy crisis, which began in 2021 and has caused record price spikes for oil, natural gas and coal -- in combination with Russia's war on Ukraine -- seems to have proven for once and all that energy independence is a matter of national security. Both Europe and the US have recently had to relearn this lesson -- yet again -- when Russian President Vladimir Putin cut gas supplies to a number of European countries after they refused to pay in Russian rubles -- and before that, when the West was confronted with the need to sanction Russian oil and gas exports, while at the same time being dependent on them.
US President Joe Biden let nearly two weeks go by after Putin invaded Ukraine, before announcing that he would finally ban US imports of Russian oil, natural gas and coal, which, until then, had been helping to pay for Putin's war on Ukraine. In 2021, 36% of Russian government revenues came from the sale of oil and gas.
Biden, even before becoming president, promised that he would kill off the American fossil fuel industry and pronounced climate change the biggest threat to national security. "I guarantee you. We're going to end fossil fuel," Biden said. After taking office, he proceeded to halt all new oil and natural gas leases on public lands and waters, and to begin reviews of existing permits for fossil fuel development, as well as regulations. He cancelled the permit for the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would have brought oil to the US from Canada, and potentially carried 830,000 barrels of oil per day, easily making up for the loss of Russian oil.
Even though the US is experiencing the highest gas prices since 2008, the Biden administration has said that it has no plans to restart construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. It has said it has issued 9,000 permits for energy exploration, but not all explorations yield oil or gas, and reports are that the number of ever-changing regulations have made actual exploration effectively impossible.
Biden's Middle East policies have not been serving the US well: Accommodating Iran and taking the Houthis off the List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, has upset US allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who could help contain the surge in oil prices by increasing output. In March, however, leaders of both countries refused to take Biden's calls after US requests were made for discussions of the energy crisis, thereby demonstrating just how diminished, under the current administration, the status of the United States has become. "There was some expectation of a phone call, but it didn't happen," a U.S. official said about a planned conversation between Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. "It was part of turning on the spigot [of Saudi oil]."
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are evidently deeply concerned at the prospect of a revived Iran nuclear deal, a fact the US continues largely to ignore.
Iran, however, has every reason to feel emboldened now, during the ongoing nuclear negotiations, especially as it observes the Biden administration's ineptitude at obtaining energy security for the US. Iran is not only watching as its regional adversaries, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, refused to talk to Biden. It is also noting that the Biden administration approached Venezuela, whose authoritarian president, Nicolás Maduro, the US does not even recognize as the legitimate leader of the country, for the possibility of importing Venezuelan oil. While Biden has since had to retreat from courting Venezuela after experiencing widespread criticism, Iranian leaders can see just how badly the Biden administration needs their oil.
"Now that the Ukraine crisis has increased the West's need for the Iranian energy sector, the US need for reduced oil prices must not be accommodated without considering Iran's righteous demands," wrote 160 of Iran's 290 members of parliament in a statement presumably directed at the negotiators of Iran's nuclear deal.
Biden denies that his own energy policies have anything to do with the soaring energy prices and tries to blame Russia's invasion of Ukraine. "It's going to go up," he told reporters in March, "We can't do much now. Russia's responsible." However, Biden at least finally acknowledged that the US must become energy independent. "This crisis is a stark reminder," Biden said on March 8, "To protect our economy over the long term, we need to become energy independent."
Biden's proposition for attaining that energy independence, nevertheless, is that the US accelerate his plan for transitioning to "clean energy" -- an unsurprising proposition, given that he has pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 50-52% from 2005 levels by 2030.
"Loosening environmental regulations or pulling back clean energy investment... will not lower energy prices," Biden said on March 8.
"But transforming our economy to run on electric vehicles powered by clean energy... that will help... if we do what we can, it will mean that no one has to worry about the price at the gas pump in the future. That'll mean tyrants like Putin won't be able to use fossil fuels as weapons against other nations. And it will make America a world leader manufacturing and exporting clean energy technologies of the future to countries all around the world."
Unfortunately, Biden's proposition is inherently flawed and untenable. Only 20% of the energy utilized by Americans in 2021 came from renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar energy, according to the US Energy Information Administration. It could take decades before renewables would remotely begin to cover American consumer needs, whereas the US needs energy independence right now, as a matter of national security, to stop being at the mercy of bad actors such as Russia, Iran and Venezuela. Sadly, even if a miracle were to occur and the US could suddenly cover all of its energy needs with renewables, such a scenario would be a national security disaster:
To transition to renewable energy, America would have to transform its energy infrastructure and invest heavily in wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars, all of which require rare earth materials as central components. A single industrial-size wind turbine, for instance, requires about one ton of four different kinds of rare earth materials.
Guess who mines more than 70 % of the world's rare earth materials, and holds at least 85% of the world's capacity to process them into materials that manufacturers can use? China. Who produces more than 60% of the world's solar panels, and 45% of the global supply of solar-grade polysilicon, the base material used in solar cells? China. Moreover, rare earths is not a market that outsiders can simply enter. According to the Danish Institute for International Studies:
"China today has the expertise, IP rights and production facilities, as well as its own REE- [rare earth elements] consuming industries. China also manufactures a significant and growing share of goods containing REEs, making it practically impossible for competing companies outside China to get a foothold."
For the US to rely entirely on renewable energy, in other words, would merely mean changing energy dependency from one set of tyrants -- the Putins, Khameneis and Maduros of the world -- to another tyrant: President Xi Jinping and China's Communist Party. That is not a recipe for energy independence; it is a recipe for suicide.
With China having cornered the markets for rare earth materials and renewable energy, the only way left forward is for the US to edge back from the all-encompassing focus on climate change, and acknowledge that the time is not quite ripe for a transition to renewables. Instead, the US will have to prioritize energy security and energy independence over environmental concerns as high priority issues of national security. While that limitation may be difficult to accept, the reality, whether one likes it or not, is that doubling down on domestic US production of fossil fuels is the only policy change that will lead the way out of the current energy crisis, while guaranteeing Americans not only affordable energy, but even more importantly, national security.
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.