Is Energy 'Dominance' the Right Goal for U.S. Policy?
By Daniel Raimi
In recent weeks, a new energy buzzword has taken flight from Washington, DC, making stops in Alaska, North Dakota, Texas, Utah and more: "American energy dominance." Taking a cue from a 2016 speech by then-candidate Donald Trump, top federal officials including Energy Sec. Rick Perry and Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke have begun to trumpet the notion of energy "dominance."
Although no cabinet official has offered a precise definition, it's a recurring theme in a set of administration events organized around energy policy, including a planned speech by Trump emphasizing exports of coal, natural gas and oil.
So what does this new energy catchphrase mean, and how should we think about it?
For decades, U.S. politicians have trumpeted the notion of energy "independence," focused primarily on the need to eliminate oil imports from OPEC nations and other countries that may not share U.S. interests. But as other energy policy experts have observed, "independence" was never a smart energy goal. Isolating the U.S. from global energy markets is neither in the interest of domestic consumers nor newly resurgent oil and gas producers in the U.S.
For consumers, access to international markets ensures energy supplies at more stable prices. For instance, consider what would happen if a hurricane shut down production and refining along the Gulf Coast, the hub of the U.S. oil and gas industry. Without access to global markets, prices for motor fuels, home heating fuels and other products would be far more volatile.
As for producers, they have argued strongly for opening up, rather than sealing off, access to international energy markets. They've lobbied to lift restrictions on crude oil exports and encouraged exports of natural gas via new pipelines and liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals.
Spurred by increased oil and gas production as a result of the shale revolution, these policy changes have resulted in dramatic growth in U.S. energy exports. In fact, net energy exports (energy exports minus energy imports) have fallen to their lowest level in decades. The U.S. could even be a net energy exporter by 2020 under one optimistic scenario.
The surge in oil and natural gas production in the U.S. means the country could become a net exporter of oil and natural gas.Energy Information Administration
This is a historic change, and administration officials are right to point out that the boom in energy production has benefited local economies, boosted tax revenues and increased U.S. leverage in diplomatic matters with countries like Russia and Iran. It has also raised important environmental and social concerns in impacted communities, such as soil and water contamination from oil and gas wastewater spills, increased traffic accidents and more.
But does does a strengthened oil and gas industry put the U.S. on track to energy dominance? In a word, no.
Pull of global markets
When people use the word "dominant," they might think of the 2017 NBA Golden State Warriors, or Roger Federer in his heyday at Wimbledon.
"Dominance" suggests the U.S. could bend geopolitical adversaries to its will by wielding energy as some type of bargaining chip or weapon. But the buying and selling of oil, gas and other forms of U.S.-produced energy are directed by market forces, not government policy. For example, a large share of recently increased crude oil exports from the U.S. has effectively gone to Venezuela, hardly a close ally. (To be precise, these exports go to the island of Curacao, where a Venezuelan-owned refinery blends U.S. light oil with heavier Venezuelan crudes.)
Indeed, U.S. policymakers routinely object when other nations (such as Iran, Russia or Saudi Arabia) make decisions about buying or selling energy with geopolitical goals in mind. What's more, manipulating energy exports to punish or reward other nations would almost certainly lead to retaliation, erecting new trade barriers that would ultimately harm the domestic and global economy.
A liquified natural gas tanker passing by Singapore. With abundant natural gas, U.S. policymakers are pushing to build out LNG ports for exports.Reuters
And even if it were desirable, "dominance" of global energy markets in today's world is simply unrealistic. There is no Roger Federer of energy.
Consider the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), maybe the closest thing to the Golden State Warriors of the energy world, which has struggled mightily in recent years to exert some control over consistently low oil prices. U.S. oil and natural gas producers, while reemergent as major players, do not have OPEC's market power, let alone that of John D. Rockefeller in the late 1800s and early 1900s or the Texas Railroad Commission from the 1930s through the 1960s (see the excellent new book "Crude Volatility" for more on this).
And why is it unrealistic to expect U.S. producers to exert this type of power? The answer lies in the enormous scale of the global energy system, which is many times larger than in the heyday of Rockefeller or other effective market managers.
A better objective
When viewed on this global scale, the resurgence of U.S. energy production looks more far more modest. The scale of current and projected global energy demand is so vast, changes in trends of U.S. energy production hardly make a dent. As a share of global energy demand, U.S. production has actually declined from 24 percent in 1980 to about 15 percent today, and is projected to decline further—even under a scenario where domestic oil and gas production grows more rapidly than expected—to 13 percent by 2040.
Even with surging oil and gas production, the U.S. still only supplies a small portion of global demand, which limits its geopolitical influenceEnergy Information Administration
To craft smart energy policies, decision-makers need to clearly identify their objectives, then work toward meeting them. These objectives should focus on enabling widespread access to reliable, affordable and sustainable energy sources.
Like its forerunner, energy "independence," the notion of American energy "dominance" is unrealistic, given the outsize role global markets play compared to U.S. policy, and it unwisely distracts from the goals that should be shaping U.S. energy policy.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
At first glance, you wouldn't think avocados and almonds could harm bees; but a closer look at how these popular crops are produced reveals their potentially detrimental effect on pollinators.
Migratory beekeeping involves trucking millions of bees across the U.S. to pollinate different crops, including avocados and almonds. Timothy Paule II / Pexels / CC0<p>According to <a href="https://www.fromthegrapevine.com/israeli-kitchen/beekeeping-how-to-keep-bees" target="_blank">From the Grapevine</a>, American avocados also fully depend on bees' pollination to produce fruit, so farmers have turned to migratory beekeeping as well to fill the void left by wild populations.</p><p>U.S. farmers have become reliant upon the practice, but migratory beekeeping has been called exploitative and harmful to bees. <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/10/health/avocado-almond-vegan-partner/index.html" target="_blank">CNN</a> reported that commercial beekeeping may injure or kill bees and that transporting them to pollinate crops appears to negatively affect their health and lifespan. Because the honeybees are forced to gather pollen and nectar from a single, monoculture crop — the one they've been brought in to pollinate — they are deprived of their normal diet, which is more diverse and nourishing as it's comprised of a variety of pollens and nectars, Scientific American reported.</p><p>Scientific American added how getting shuttled from crop to crop and field to field across the country boomerangs the bees between feast and famine, especially once the blooms they were brought in to fertilize end.</p><p>Plus, the artificial mass influx of bees guarantees spreading viruses, mites and fungi between the insects as they collide in midair and crawl over each other in their hives, Scientific American reported. According to CNN, some researchers argue that this explains why so many bees die each winter, and even why entire hives suddenly die off in a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder.</p>
Avocado and almond crops depend on bees for proper pollination. FRANK MERIÑO / Pexels / CC0<p>Salazar and other Columbian beekeepers described "scooping up piles of dead bees" year after year since the avocado and citrus booms began, according to Phys.org. Many have opted to salvage what partial colonies survive and move away from agricultural areas.</p><p>The future of pollinators and the crops they help create is uncertain. According to the United Nations, nearly half of insect pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, risk global extinction, Phys.org reported. Their decline already has cascading consequences for the economy and beyond. Roughly 1.4 billion jobs and three-quarters of all crops around the world depend on bees and other pollinators for free fertilization services worth billions of dollars, Phys.org noted. Losing wild and native bees could <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wild-bees-crop-shortage-2646849232.html" target="_self">trigger food security issues</a>.</p><p>Salazar, the beekeeper, warned Phys.org, "The bee is a bioindicator. If bees are dying, what other insects beneficial to the environment... are dying?"</p>
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