What We Talk About When We Talk About Energy Independence

The phrase “energy independence” resides at the heart of any Barack Obama speech on alternative energy. The political use of the phrase enervates the words turning them to trite shells lacking actual meaning.

Unfortunate because energy independence is a worthy cause, but not for simple xenophobic reasons. The phrase itself is misleading, but the idea behind it–we should not support destructive practices to get energy–is important.

Our colleagues at Clusterstock argued that economically speaking, energy independence is foolish. It doesn’t matter where we get our oil. If we don’t get it from Saudi Arabia, where it costs less for us, then another nation will. And whoever that nation is, suddenly it has an economic advantage because it spends less money that the United States.

Undoubtedly that is part of the equation, but it misses the political, economic and social ramifications that come with the exploration of new sources of energy.

The New York Times pours 2,886 words into the tribulations of French oil company Total. The company is an active participant when it comes to finding new sources of oil in potentially hostile nations.

The story starts and ends in Sana, Yemen, where Total installed a $4 billion natural gas project, projected to bring Yemen’s government $50 billion in tax revenue over the next 25 years. Despite the large chunk of cash expected to flow to the country’s coffers, Total is not being greeted as a great ally. It’s pipeline has been bombed by terrorists. Total sent employees home because of safety concerns. The embassy in Yemen was attacked by suicide bombers linked to Al Qaeda in September, killing 20. Total employees travel with security when they move around the town, and they can not leave Sana because of security concerns.

Total’s previous interactions with nations like Iran and Iraq also caused problems. “In separate investigations, French judges have been examining Total’s role in the United Nations oil-for-food program in Iraq, and whether it made secret payments to enter the Iranian market.” These problems are not unusual when an oil company plants its flag in foreign nations. When it agrees to do business with corrupt governments of destitute nations, there will be resentment and compromises.

Justified or not, clearly, there are people in Yemen that do not want Total in the country. The pipeline the company is building winds its way throw 22 tribal villages. Unless they get some of the billions in tax revenue, their resentment could manifest itself in an ugly way. If the people of Yemen, or any country, see foreigners plundering their land, while their quality of life doesn’t improve, then there will be problems. To Total’s credit, the Times story says that following a flood a months ago, the company donated $300,000 to villages for repairs, which is in addition to the $80,000 it spends annually for local devlopment.

This is the delicate balance of energy exploration that is more than mere economics. And that it is what is at stake about when we talk about energy independence. It’s not about protectionism, rather it is about responsible energy expansion.

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