Thanks to fracking and the oil rush in North Dakota, many analysts predict energy independence for North America, and even for the U.S. itself. The most recent high-profile prediction came from Citigroup’ s global commodities research team, headed by Edward Morse. They issued an 85-page report, which sadly is not available for free, on the future of the energy markets. From a purely economic standpoint, the report, and others like it, was upbeat. However in terms of overall foreign policy, it’s hard to see how energy independence is a game changer.
The Citi report stated that the “momentum toward North American energy independence accelerated last year well beyond the wildest dreams of any energy analyst.” The report supported this by noting “Crude oil production rose from the beginning to the end of 2012 by 1.16 million barrels per day, while natural gas liquids increased by 170 thousand barrels per day.”
Since the 1970s oil embargo, the U.S. has focused a lot of its attention on access to oil. Indeed, the Carter Doctrine says that the U.S. will use force to protect the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. The fear then was the Soviets, having moved into Afghanistan, would someday occupy the oil fields of Arabia and win the Cold War. Despite the USSR going out of business, America remains concerned about access to oil from abroad.
If the country achieves energy independence, theory says that America becomes free from the need to prop up unpleasant but friendly dictators, and American policy in the region will undergo a revolution based on a greater ability to maneuver. In practice, though, I am not so sure that the extra room is going to be all that much.
Because of the Al Qaeda murders of 2001 and because of the Arab Spring (and yes, the collapse of the USSR), American policy across North Africa into the Middle East and beyond to Indonesia, has experienced mission creep, for want of a better term. America had a primary interest in access to oil, but in acting on that interest, the country became entangled in other political aspects of the region. In other words, we are so involved now that energy is merely one component of our array of interests.
If energy vanished entirely from the equation, Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups would continue to target America and those close to it. The Arab Spring has illustrated the split between rulers and ruled in many countries where America has established a presence; which side America backs may be tied to access to energy, but many other consideration enter the picture.
I am glad that there is a shot at energy independence for North America in general and the U.S. in particular. It will improve our balance of payments, and it will give us greater control over our environmental policies in the long run. I remain doubtful, though, that ending our importation of oil from sensitive regions in the world will have as great an impact on our foreign policy as some hope. In the 1970s, that might have been the case, but after 40 years, the situation is more complicated.