In the days that followed the U.S. assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, conservative commentators repeatedly invoked the term “energy independence,” claiming it made the strike possible.
“The only reason we have the freedom of action to neutralize this bad actor,” claimed Commentary’s Noah Rothman, “is because fracking made us functionally energy independent and able to stabilize global oil shocks.”
Fox personalities discussed energy independence numerous times, and the concept eventually made its way to President Donald Trump, who stated in a speech regarding Iran on January 8: “We are now the number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world. We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil."
The U.S. has seen a massive increase in domestic oil production over the last decade, much of it thanks to the U.S. shale boom. Couple this with the fact that U.S. oil imports have fallen to their lowest levels in decades, and the U.S. is now a net exporter of oil and thus nominally energy independent. Because of energy independence, some conservatives argue, the U.S. has less of a need to entangle itself in Middle East affairs but also greater freedom to act aggressively if it does so, because our economy is less susceptible to oil shocks. This energy independence claim, aside from justifying escalation with Iran, can also be used to promote increased production of fossil fuels in the U.S. -- specifically, fracked oil and natural gas.
But these right-wing commentators are missing key nuances about the idea of U.S. energy independence, and they are also dismissing the climate and national security issues associated with increased dependence on fossil fuels. The only way to become truly energy independent is to hasten the transition to a cleaner energy economy.
Fox commentators have hyped “energy independence” when talking about Iran
Fox Business’ Stuart Varney made this point on the January 3 edition of Fox & Friends. Because of U.S. fracking, he claimed, “if you took out Iranian oil installations, I don't think it would have that big an impact on us in America.”
The idea was again invoked on the January 8 edition of Fox & Friends by former U.S. Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold:
This is what energy independence gives the United States and the American people. It gives us the ability to have flexibility in the Middle East. It gives us the ability that when actions like this happen, we are not beholden to someone that is supplying our oils or to Middle East nations that supply oil. While other countries are still very dependent upon the Middle East because of their lack of natural resources, the United States, in developing this technology, … this is what that fracking, that hydraulic drilling, this private investment, has given our country: national security flexibility to do what we need to do to ensure that the world’s economies are not going to be disrupted by these events going on in the Middle East.
Others also mentioned the national security implications of U.S. drilling. “The U.S. just hit 12.6 million barrels a day in production,” claimed Fox Business’ Jackie DeAngelis on the January 3 edition of Outnumbered Overtime. “When I look at the Trump administration rolling back regulation, what they’ve done with the oil strategy, I really look at it as a national security strategy.” Guest host Melissa Francis agreed that “because of all the fracking that has taken place, … we are producing more oil than ever before. For national security reasons, that makes a really big difference.” Fox Business’ Trish Regan also mentioned national security on her January 6 show and claimed that because of energy independence, “We don't need Iran, and we don’t need Iraq -- not when it comes to our own energy needs.”
In an op-ed for Fox News, Koch alum Daniel Turner with the pro-industry think tank Power the Future went so far as to blame Democrats and “green policies” for attempting to destroy U.S. drilling and hurt U.S. national security:
Fortunately, President Trump has aggressively pursued deregulation and other needed policies that have led to big increases in U.S. production of oil and natural gas. This makes us far less vulnerable to Iranian threats to block the Straits of Hormuz than we would be if a Democrat becomes president in 2021, because all the Democratic presidential candidates have called for actions that would sharply reduce U.S. fossil fuel production.
Iran and America’s other enemies would like nothing better than to see the Democratic “green” policies implemented, because those policies would strike a tremendous blow to America’s national security and make us far more dependent on oil and natural gas from the Middle East. This would give Iran considerable leverage over the U.S., and making it less likely that we would resist Iranian efforts to spread terrorism and develop nuclear weapons.
Later in that same Fox News op-ed, Turner even seemed to invoke climate denial, claiming that “radical environmentalists have convinced millions of voters that oil, natural gas and coal are destroying our planet,” concluding: “Green policies don’t make our environment clean. They make our nation weak.”
In an appearance on Fox Business’ Cavuto Coast to Coast on January 7, Turner stated that “we want to protect the oil industry as a whole because it undergirds our economy, but regardless of what happens in the world, America is in a stronger position. And I have to question anyone running for office who wants to take us away from that position of strength and make us a weaker country.”
Former Republican congressman and current Fox News commentator Jason Chaffetz made this same point on the January 6 edition of Fox Nation’s Deep Dive. He called for continued U.S. oil and gas drilling and took a swipe at the Democrats’ “climate change agenda”:
Even net oil exporter status cannot make the U.S. truly energy independent
Because oil is traded on the global market and the U.S. still continues to import oil from the Middle East, the U.S. is not fully energy independent and is still susceptible to supply disruptions. Speaking to the Washington Examiner, former Obama administration adviser Richard Nephew stated, “There is this false perception that the ‘energy independence’ they talk about gives us the ability to do these sorts of things without much risk. What will shift markets and cause people to truly understand how dangerous things are is a major sustained supply loss.”
Ryan Kellogg of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago also addressed the interconnectivity of global oil prices and the U.S., explaining: “Because it is really cheap to move vast quantities of oil around the world on super tankers, oil prices in the United States can never vary far from prices elsewhere. If that happened, ships would rapidly arbitrage away the price gap.”
And writing for the Council on Foreign Relations about the complications of U.S. fossil fuel production, energy and sustainability expert Amy Jaffe noted: “Even when those bottlenecks help keep the price of oil in Texas at a discount to international levels, it doesn’t help the Trump administration, which has to worry about how any shock in the global price of oil would disturb its broader goals that are related to the dollar, trade and global economic growth.”
Fluctuating domestic gas prices are also affected by the world oil market, as Columbia University’s Jason Bordoff pointed out in Foreign Policy last September after attacks on Saudi oil facilities:
Oil is priced in a global market, so prices in the United States move with the world price whether we import or not. U.S. gasoline prices reflect world oil prices, albeit with a lag. Wholesale gasoline prices spiked when markets opened after the attack. Drivers will soon see the effects when they fill up at the pump.
Bordoff reiterated this point on Twitter following the latest escalations with Iran:
The only way to become truly energy independent is to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels
Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels -- not just foreign oil, but also domestically produced shale gas and oil -- is the only way to be safe from an oil shock and to be truly energy independent.
In September, The Washington Post’s Jeanne Whalen made this point succinctly, stating: “Real freedom from oil-and-gas-price shocks can happen only if the United States replaces fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. Wind, solar and hydro energy are increasingly fueling power generation in the United States, accounting for 17 percent of electricity production last year, up from 13 percent in 2013, according to the Energy Information Administration.”
The editorial board of the Financial Times weighed in in a January 5 editorial on the Iran situation, noting: “US policymakers, meanwhile, need to recognise that true energy independence is not just about ensuring supply but also about curbing demand. This can only be done through improving fuel efficiency, investing in new technologies such as electric vehicles and a gradual shift away from fossil fuels.”
Perhaps the best example comes from The Week’s Jeff Spross, who addressed “the myth of energy independence” in September:
If we assume that what President Trump means by "energy dominance" is true protection from the political and economic instability of the rest of the world, then producing 18 percent of the globe's oil is not nearly enough. America would need to produce the vast majority of the global oil supply — an impossible feat. Or it would need to completely outlaw all imports and exports of oil (as well as coal and natural gas), which seems equally hair-brained. Even then, the U.S. would still be vulnerable to the domestic risks of these energy sources: the doubtful geological and economic sustainability of the American shale oil boom, the massive water consumption that electricity production from fossil fuels requires, the ongoing press of climate change, and of course the fact that eventually these energy sources will run out.
The only true way to minimize all those risks to America's economy and security is to cease using these energy sources at all. Electrify everything — not just transportation, but heating for homes and buildings, heavy industry processes, and all the rest of it — and then shift all electricity generation onto solar, wind, and other renewables.
Costa Samaras, environmental engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the Center for Engineering and Resilience for Climate Adaptation, also discussed U.S. energy security and what the U.S. really needs to do in order to “blunt the impact of an oil price spike”:
Protecting the U.S. from climate change, not defending the profits of fossil fuel companies, should be the priority for national security policy
Fox’s misleading segments on supposed U.S. energy independence also either dismissed or outright denied oil and gas drilling’s role in climate change.
Two recent U.N. reports highlight the dangers of increased fossil fuel production’s role in worsening climate change. The recent U.N. Production Gap Report found that within a decade, planned fossil fuel production will “more than double what’s allowable to avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming,” while the latest U.N. Emissions Gap Report found that to stay within safe limits of extreme climate change, emissions must decline by almost 8% each year between 2020 and 2030.
The world is currently not on track to meet those goals, and in the U.S., which is likely to become the largest oil and gas power within the next decade, the Trump administration is actually busy rolling back policies that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One recent report found that by 2025, greenhouse gas emissions from planned U.S. oil and gas expansions will increase 30% from 2018 numbers.
Fox commentators also left out the fact that U.S. fracking has caused a huge increase in methane emissions. According to one scientist, 30% to 60% of the global increase in methane emissions have come from the U.S. Methane is over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first two decades of its release into the atmosphere. There are also numerous other environmental issues related to fracking, including increased water pollution and premature births.
Fox’s discussion also left out climate change’s role in national security issues. Extreme weather and rising seas caused by our warming climate can worsen global instability. The convergence of climate change and national security was addressed directly in the U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment.
The militarization of fossil fuels is also a dangerous connection that was not touched upon when right-wing commentators were chest thumping about a possible war with Iran. Oil companies benefited greatly from the Iraq War, and as journalist Antonia Juhasz noted, there is a case to be made that oil dominance figured into the assassination of Soleimani. War is also catastrophic for the climate: The U.S. military already emits more carbon dioxide than most countries, and as Emily Atkin writes in Heated, a potential war with Iran “would almost certainly doom the effort to prevent climate catastrophe.”
Which ties us back to the idea that a world with less reliance on fossil fuels would almost certainly mean a world with less war. Environmental activist and journalist Bill McKibben put it best in imagining such an alternative:
If it happens, this war, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, will cost untold lives, most of them civilian. It will also, like those conflicts, cost trillions of dollars. Imagine if we had spent those trillions of dollars not on cruise missiles and up-armoured Humvees, but on solar farms and offshore wind turbines. Imagine if we’d stuck insulation in the walls of every building in the US, and built a robust network of electric vehicle chargers.
No one will ever fight a war over access to sunshine – what would a country do, set up enormous walls to shade everyone else’s panels? (Giant walls are hard to build – just ask Trump.) Fossil fuels are concentrated in a few places, giving those who live atop them enormous power; renewable energy can be found everywhere, the birthright of all humans. A world that runs on sun and wind is a world that can relax.