Monday, January 10, 2011

Weaponizing Energy

I recently returned from a week in Berlin with the American Council on Germany Study Group. The purpose of the study group was to look at German efforts in regards to energy and climate change. The assembled group of Americans included folks who were less than convinced as to the anthropomorphic nature of climate change which the Germans take as gospel. In our meetings and briefings with the Bundestag, Chancellery, members of political party think tanks and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, we heard loud and clear that the bold efforts undertaken by Germany in the past decades have been to reduce the amount of carbon they placed in the atmosphere. What became evident over the course of the week was that, although much time was spent discussing impacts of climate change and parts per million (go 350!) what has really been behind the effort were concerns for energy security.

Germany does not have sufficient natural resources in fossil fuels to meet its needs. They import coal from Norway and natural gas from Russia. Only 11% of their energy needs are met by nuclear power. On the world stage, it is probably not good to hear that Germany is concerned about getting the natural resources they require (or Japan for that matter) so concern for climate impacts are much more palatable.

In October 2009, a commercial dispute between Naftohaz Ukrainy and Gazprom turned in to a transnational political issue that threatened the supply of natural gas to several European Union members. This episode focused the EU on the short term interest of energy security. The recent closing of a Pakistani border crossing got the attention of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Though short lived, this identified a critical vulnerability. Imagine fossil fuel poor countries examining their own vulnerabilities. Their only choice: innovate or die. China is not leading the world in the production of renewable energy technologies because the Politburo has become tree huggers. It is about economic opportunity and securing their own energy supplies. The Chinese government’s willingness to subsidize electric cars is a reflection of the vulnerability of the 4.3 billion barrels of oil they import daily. We worry about the straits of Hormuz. They worry about Hormuz AND Malacca.

Now in the latest flexing of energy muscles, Iran has stopped shipments of fuel to Afghanistan. Iran hasn’t given a reason for the curtailment, but the NYT speculates that it could be reflecting Iran’s own energy challenges. Another reason would be to cause NATO force to divert fuel to Afhans in the winter or be seen as callus and insensitive to civilian suffering. I would be interested to know if any of that fuel started out as Kurdish oil, but that is for another day.

Access to resources has always been a catalyst for war. Food and water are the lifeblood of the population and energy is the lifeblood of the economy. National angst about energy takes many forms; unfortunately with the bumper crop of legislation produced by the lame duck session of Congress, one area has been conspicuously absent. My hope for the New Year is that the apparent willingness to deal on both sides of our national debate will be evident in an energy bill this year. The rest of the world is figuring it out. As a nation, we must do so as well.

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