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By Andrew Holland on Apr 18, 2013 with 11 responses

Why I’m Done Talking About Energy Security

Meaningless Buzzword

I work on energy policy for a national security think tank, so I am often asked to talk about energy security. Last week, I participated in a conference in which we were asked to comment on “U.S. Energy Security: How Do We Get There?” As I listened to the presenters at the conference, I realized that how you viewed the problem of ‘Energy Security’ depends on how you identify it. We all seem to have determined that energy security is a problem, but we each had different understandings of what the term ‘energy security’ actually means! Of course, that means there were very different prescriptions for how to ‘solve’ the problems of ‘energy security.’

In the absence of a definition, everyone defines energy security differently –both speakers and listeners. It is something like the late Margaret Thatcher said about the politics of consensus: “it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.” Along those lines, I believe that ‘energy security’ has devolved into simply a buzzword: a phrase that everyone favors, but defines differently. Pundits, politicians, lobbyists, industry, and campaigners from across the political spectrum cry ‘energy security’ because it polls better than their preferred policies. I have done it as well. Listeners, then, are misled because, really, who could actually be against ‘energy security?’ It is like being against mom, America, and apple pie.

As the Years Roll On

API uses ‘energy security’ to argue that we need to open more land to drilling. Proponents of Keystone XL argue that we need a new pipeline from Canada because of ‘energy security.’ Environmentalists argue ‘energy security’ to tell us why we need to build more windmills and solar power.

We all once agreed what energy security meant: in 1973 and 1979, oil price spikes caused by OPEC embargoes led to oil price controls and lines at the gas pump. Going even further back, amateur historians know that the lack of oil was crippling for the German war machine in the Second World War and that the Royal Navy had to protect its access to oil in Persia. So, we think that energy security means the ability to win wars and prevent shortages of energy.

However, the truth is that America and the world largely solved these problems of ‘energy security’ in the 1970s and 1980s by diversifying the world’s sources of oil, creating deep and liquid financial markets, and creating Strategic Petroleum Reserves in all OECD countries. Meanwhile, our rhetoric and vocabulary about energy security has not changed since then. Our energy debates are stuck in the shortages of the 1970s and the optimistic growth and low prices of 1980s. But – the problems of 2013 are not the problems of 30 or 40 years ago!

Retire the Outdated Term

It is time to retire the term ‘energy security.’ I am going to stop using it, and I am calling for other pundits to do so as well. Instead, we should all be more precise about what we are actually concerned with.

Are you afraid that dependence on foreign oil makes it more likely that we’re funding terrorism? Then you should be arguing to get off oil completely, because – in a fungible market any consumption drives up prices.

Are you worried that the prices of gasoline or electricity are too high, and that price spikes are harming our pocketbooks? Don’t cry ‘energy security’ – instead talk about energy affordability.

Have you read your history books closely and are worried that our military won’t have access to energy, like Winston Churchill was around the turn of the last century when the Royal Navy switched from (British-produced) coal to petroleum from oil fields of Persia? Don’t be – unlike the world of the early 20th Century, there is no conceivable scenario in which the U.S. military is unable to access the oil it needs to fight and win America’s wars.

Do you think that we need more clean energy production from wind and solar? Don’t say we need it for ‘energy security’ – be truthful and say we need more wind and solar because they are cleaner, with fewer polluting emissions.

Conclusion: Be Specific About the Real Issue

We have talked about the concept of ‘energy security’ so much that it no longer means anything. All of us writers should retire the term: it has become what George Orwell called a “dying metaphor” – a term which has “lost all evocative power and [is] merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”

More importantly, we should call-out politicians and policymakers when they talk about energy security: we should ask them what they’re hiding – and what they’re really worried about.

There are some very important questions about energy today – but we are doing a disservice to always talk about them in the context of ‘energy security.’ Instead, let’s have real arguments about energy affordability, the effects of energy imports on trade deficits or geopolitics, or the pollution that producing and burning energy creates.

We should argue about how the military uses energy – but we should not let history cloud our views about it: we are not going to have to drive through Stalingrad to access that energy. Viewing everything through a prism of ‘energy security’ has given us an obscured conversation about energy. Let’s talk about the real problems and get away from the buzzwords.

  1. By Jeremy Allan D'Herville on April 19, 2013 at 12:30 am

    It’s a bit like the word ‘green’ really. It’s now an economic – projected epidemiological health cost benefit analysis buzzword. A bit like ‘sustainability’ too. Morality preached in the collectivist media congregation along with top down enforced regulations serving guilt free industry offsets, which in the most part are very unstable. Research dollars that could be going into competitive technical developments and toxicology evidence based study is being bypassed for public relations fear mongering and statistically rough comparitive data and loose epidemiological projections on health costs. There is nothing ‘natural world’ about a lot of this science they preach. The vote was given to the energy industry and they have offset their emissions with government and corporate sponsored enterprising. Energy poverty increases with the consensus based, rather than evidence based health costs that stomp on fixes to combustion fuel emmissions reduction. Typical log wood fuel for carbon neutral – sustainable heating bashing is an anti-common sense example from lobbyists who are not held accountable for any sponsored conflict of interest. Frankly it’s a mess, full of misleading information.

    • By Andrew Holland on April 19, 2013 at 5:12 pm

      Jeremy – thanks for commenting. I’d be a bit careful here. When we say ‘green’ we know what we’re talking about: something that is more environmentally friendly. It is defined. Whether you like ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ policies is debatable – but at least they have a definition.

    • By FNLED on September 20, 2015 at 2:08 pm

      Incoherent word salad.

      Want to break it down in a discussion/debate?

  2. By Peter Z. Grossman on April 19, 2013 at 9:39 am

    Well said; I couldn’t agree more. And while we’re at it let’s get rid of that other 1970s cliche, energy independence. As I argue in my new book, U.S. Energy Policy and the Pursuit of Failure, it’s an phrase that has also devolved into meaninglessness. Nevertheless, it comes up in just about every energy discussion and is embraced (as with energy security) by nearly everyone.

    • By Andrew Holland on April 19, 2013 at 5:09 pm

      Peter – couldn’t agree more. Energy independence has the benefit at least of being specific. But – that doesn’t make it rational! Thanks for posting – I’ll take a look at your book

  3. By Russ Finley on April 19, 2013 at 6:55 pm

    Nice article,

    …there is no conceivable scenario in which the U.S. military is unable to
    access the oil it needs to fight and win America’s wars.

    In an extended and very large conflict, this could include the conversion of coal or natural gas to whatever fuel the military needed, as Germany did.

    When we say ‘green’ we know what we’re talking about: something that is
    more environmentally friendly. It is defined. Whether you like ‘green’
    or ‘sustainable’ policies is debatable – but at least they have a

    I’d be careful there ; ) I think you have a very similar definition problem with words like green. Which is greener?

    1) Hydroelectric in the Amazon
    2) Biomass fired gas turbines
    3) Corn ethanol
    4) Palm oil biodiesel
    5) Nuclear energy

  4. By Russ Finley on April 20, 2013 at 11:14 am

    The following is a quote I just found over at Triple Pundit:

    Add to that the interest of the Department of Defense in developing a vigorous domestic biofuel industry in support of energy security, particularly regarding aviation biofuel for the Air Force and Navy, and you can see where high risk fossil fuel projects like the Keystone pipeline seem forced and seriously out of date.

    Come to think of it, thanks to the nearby tar sands, there would be no need to tap coal or natural gas to fight a major war, unless it was against Canada ; ).

    • By Robert Rapier on April 20, 2013 at 2:47 pm

      LOL, that’s the comment you should have left over there.

  5. By ben on April 23, 2013 at 2:28 am

    I can’t say that I have a any real problem with “energy security,” but I must confess that
    manipulation of the term achieves an art form in Washington and other places where expedience tends to trump integrity. Regrettably, those with interests closely aligned with the military, to include the ever-present defense contractors, are among the most profligate in deploying the term to suit their own ends and, all too often, under the guise of patriotism. For those following the money trail, it’s nearly enough to lead one back to old Samuel Johnson’s observation of patriotism, “…. the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

    Lord knows we need a military capable of upholding what is arguably the first requirement of sound government. That is, however, hardly license to lay an unchallenged claim on a huge slice of the public treasury independent of economic conditions. The spectre of security threats always exists and poses significant challenges for each generation. Yet, the need to meet a broad range of societal challenges must be taken equally into account notwithstanding a natural, and, healthy, impulse to “support the troops.” I dare say that such an impulse is not unlike our instinctive response to rally to the defense of family farmers, even as the actual percentage of American agriculture represented by such farmers continues to shrink to a tiny fraction of total output compared to that of corporate agribusiness interests.

    Alas, tradition, legacy and symbolism combine in offering a compelling narrative that is too often predicate to self-interested manipulation. Until we come to grips with the sad truth that our commercial tail is wagging the policy (read; political) dog, we shall continue our slide into socioeconomic mediocrity. That slide inevitably compromises our security in practical ways that will, in time,risk both lives and liberty.

    Some say it’s not too late, but the hour does appear to grow late. Are we muddling toward a new oder of the ages with America retreating on the global stage, or are merely reforming our ranks for the vital challenges at hand and ahead? The honesty in which we assess and obligate ourselves toward a viable framework of collective security, to include that of “energy security,” may well speak to our seriousness about self-governance. At the risk of sounding uncharitable, let’s say the jury remains out on that one for
    the moment. While I do remain esentially an optimist, you might say I’m a cautious one.

    Thanks for aiming to play it straight, Holland. Recent exchanges highlight that some of our Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen are taking stock of these issues regardless of the company line among the brass or over in political quarters. That is always a very healthy–and most welcome–sign!


    • By Andrew Holland on April 23, 2013 at 5:00 pm

      Thanks, Ben! Keep reading and I hope I keep it down the straight and narrow – call me on it if I don’t!

  6. By ben on April 23, 2013 at 6:46 pm


    In reading your past articles, I sense much of the former senator from Nebraska’s Midwestern sensibilities. Now, that may be more attributable to the Holland clan’s influence than that of an old boss, but the implications are most welcome nonetheless. Offer the Marine boss our “SF” regards. He’s missed in So. Texas.

    One hopes/expects OSD will be playing it straight in the days ahead. How resources, if any, are invested under the DPA may signal how wise the second term team is in providing a game plan that moves beyond the ill-advised initiatives of the recent past.

    As for keeping you straight, well, Rapier is among the most dependable canaries in the coal mine on the whole energy scene. One suspects that you, too, appreciate this point of view.


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