Sunday, April 3, 2011

It's Groundhog Day for Oil Fears

On Wednesday the New York Times published a lengthy piece by Clifford Krauss on the topic of U.S. energy independence titled "Can We Do Without the Middle East?" Here's how it starts:
Imagine a foreign policy version of the movie “Groundhog Day,” with Bill Murray playing the president of the United States. The alarm clock rings. Political mayhem is again shaking the Middle East, crude oil and gasoline prices are climbing, and an economic recovery is under threat...
In a Twitter post last month I also employed a Groundhog Day reference in the context of oil price volatility, but somewhat differently:
With oil prices heading up again, oil alarmists are digging out all their old, stale, material. Groundhog ... Day.
 Here's the message I just sent to Krauss:
I enjoyed your lengthy piece on oil independence on Wednesday. Your answers to the question posed in the title were current and interesting.   
I did, however, find the framing of the article truly disconcerting. The various pronouncements you cited regarding the need for "energy independence" prove only that a strong and diverse political constituency exists in the U.S. to support the proposition that reliance on foreign oil is a national security threat that requires urgent action; those pronouncements do not, however, prove that the proposition is true. (You also mention balance of payments. Parallel arguments hold for other imports as well--including other non-renewables whose price trajectories have closely tracked those of oil since the 1980s. So that line of reasoning doesn't lead to proof either.)  
The real Groundhog Day here relates to the overwhelming tendency of politicians and journalists alike to take for granted the oil insecurity proposition itself. A rare exception was this recent piece in The Boston Globe. I have written on this topic as well (links below).  
The significant recent developments in the Middle East call for a reassessment of old assumptions and a questioning of reasoning-by-force-of-habit. The topic of U.S. energy insecurity related to oil imports is certainly a case in point.  
There is one "o" word that should come to mind when thinking of the Middle East in 2011: It's not "oil", it's "opportunity." Time for U.S. journalists, political leaders, and policymakers alike to wake up to that fact.

If you'd like elaboration, listen the talk that Fadi Ghadour gave at the Skoll World Forum two days ago (link here, scroll to "Closing Plenary," starts at 59:00).

Issues in Science and Technology Policy (National Academies of Sciences), Summer 2006
"The Myth of Energy Insecurity"

Boston Globe, January 23, 2007
"Let's call an end to oil alarmism"

The American Interest, May-June 2007 

"The Irrelevance of the Middle East"

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