What Does Energy Security Look Like?

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The US military provides energy security by helping Persian Gulf oil flow around the world.

"US military warns oil output may dip causing massive shortages by 2015." That's the headline in an article I read the other day. Politicians and the media may not take energy security seriously, but the leaders of our armed forces sure do. They understand the basic facts of the global economy, and their rank as perhaps the single biggest user of oil forces on them an innate need to plan for what may become future problems.

In my first article in this series on energy security, I showed why we can't drill our way out of our oil problem. The US is long past peak production, and our consumption is too high. Thus, we rely heavily on oil from other parts of the world. The problem with that tactic is that the world is now either already past peak or getting close; hence the high gasoline prices we're seeing at the pump.

The military has been paying attention to this issue for a long time. This new study warns that we could find the global oil supply short by 10 million barrels per day. That's more than 10% of the 87 million barrels per day that we produce, and taking that much oil out of the market will have a huge effect if it happens.

Energy Security Fundamentals

OK, we have some potentially serious, perhaps somewhat devastating, maybe even slightly catastrophic changes coming down the pike. Let's forget about that bit of nastiness for now, though, and focus on the question in the title of this article: What does energy security look like?

Starting with the most basic, I'd say that energy security first and foremost means:

  • Fuel shortages don't occur.
  • If fuel shortages do occur, we're able to roll with them because we have a plan to make sure that the most important needs get met first.
  • We continually stay a step ahead of the energy situation.

Those three objectives may sound easy, but they're not. We have a political and economic system that refuses to acknowledge that we could ever face serious global fuel shortages. The International Energy Agency and the US Energy Information Administration have been beating the drum of energy optimism so long that's practically all they know. Their idea of forecasting is to project the curve of demand ever upward and assume that we'll have no problem meeting it with energy supplies. (Well, OK, the IEA may finally be coming around a bit, but the EIA is still pretty much a basket case.)

Going back to those three objectives, if we assume that we won't be able to avoid fuel shortages indefinitely, what can we do that helps us get through them with the least amount of damage? In order, we need to provide for:

  1. Basic human needs - food, shelter, and clothing
  2. Local security - Police cars get fuel before NASCAR drivers.
  3. An economy that keeps as many people as possible working

But how do we accomplish these objectives? If the gas stations don't get refueled for a week, how chaotic will things get? What happens if natural gas supplies go down in winter or the electric utilities during a heat wave?

I have to admit that I have more questions than answers here. I do believe that humans are a resilient lot, but if we faced serious fuel shortages for an extended period, we might get kind of cranky. One thing that's given me some hope is that during the economic downturn of the past few years, we've had to come to grips with how overextended we became personally and as a society. In fact, I wrote a little piece about this last year called The Optimism of Pessimism.

I do know that, since at heart what we have is really a liquid fuels problem and not an energy problem, we need to do something about transportation, which is where the majority of our liquid fuels go. Also, to keep people working, we must confront the fatal flaw we've embedded so deeply in our economic dogma that it's heresy to mention it. I wrote about the flaw that cannot be named last year, too. It's just basic arithmetic, but a basic human drive makes it difficult for us to understand.

So, how do we create real energy security? And what will the world look like when we do?


This is part 2 in a series on energy security. Read the first here:

Energy Independence Is a Fantasy - Let's Focus on Energy Security


Photo by Marion Doss from flickr.com, used under a Creative Commons license.


John Poole

Allison, you're certainly right about that "fatal flaw that cannot be named", the belief in endless economic growth, being tantamount to heresy. But here are two more heresies that no one seems willing to admit to: 1) The mitigation of our energy/liquid fuels problem won't be found in manufacturing and buying "more stuff" (e.g., we need 50 million more electric cars, and we need them by next month), and 2) Endless population growth is ultimately what drives this endless demand for energy, and will eventually lay waste to any alternative energy strategies we might devise (i.e., it doesn't matter how stringently you conserve; if you have a positively increasing population of new consumers, you'll still use up all your resources). 
I don't profess to have any solution for either. I'm certainly not in favor of legislating control of how people behave and what they do. But neither endless economic growth, nor endless population growth, are sustainable.

M. Johnson

Great article. You have good identifiable sources, and I really admire the way you deconstruct "security", using your list of requirements. Seldom do we see a subject like this tackled so clearly.

Allison Bailes

John: You're absolutely right. Anyone who talks about sustainability without including a discussion of population is ignoring one of the most crucial aspects of it. 
Mark: Thanks, Mark. I'm glad you like how I broke it down. I had to rewrite the second part of the article once because I started going down a wrong path on my first pass. I think I still need to refine my thinking on this topic, but I do think I captured the essence of it here.


Cheap energy is what made the United States what it is. We were still developing as a nation when we learned to use oil. Now we have a country that is built of, by, and for cheap oil (coal, natural gas, etc). We have completely forgotten how to live without it. 
Living an energy intensive lifestyle is going to begin to get more expensive. We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg right now. Unfortunately, we have shipped all of our jobs out of the country just as we need them in order to pay for this more expensive energy. Conversely, as energy gets more expensive, the freight to ship products from overseas may bring a few jobs back here. 
In this budget crisis, it seems the first place we want to cut is education. That should be the last place we cut. Our educational system doesn't work as well as it should or could, but that's not because it has too much money. More money wouldn't fix the problem either. We need to make it a national cultural priority to fundamentally change our educational system into something far more effective. Universities need fundamental change as well. We have an educational system that deals almost exclusively with the theoretical, while the real world is practical. 
As mentioned above, the really scary reality is that the planet probably cannot support 7 billion people sustainably without an abundant oil supply.