In 1973, Americans awoke to a new world in which their daily economic lives were suddenly subject to the whims of a heretofore much-underestimated foreign oil cartel. Six years and a surge in gasoline prices later came a new blow–a little-understood uprising in faraway Iran that sent fuel prices up even further.
In Michael Levi’s new book, The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future, we read that much of the passion behind today’s US mantra of “energy independence” is an effort to claw back a remembered sense of control from the pre-1973 days. Americans wish to “get off foreign oil” because they believe that the good old days will follow. But, cautions Levi, events aren’t necessarily going to turn out that way.
The US seems likely to produce a lot more oil, perhaps even a volume nearing or meeting self-sufficiency, Levi says. If so, it will be thanks to a boom in volumes from two sources—the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, and shale in places like North Dakota. But an age of plenty will trigger corresponding steps by other nations to neutralize perceived adverse impacts on themselves. Geopolitically–in terms of the financial burden of patrolling the world’s sea lanes, for instance—Americans are likely to be right back where they started, meaning footing the bill for a global Navy. The Pacific is the same—the US is highly unlikely to pull back from its robust security presence despite China’s wish that it stop.
Levi, who made his remarks at the launch of The Power Surge, today at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC, contributes valuably to the discourse since the issue has been hijacked by ideologists of both the industry and environmental sides. Levi argues, in fact, that the polemics are so thick that foreign powers do not know whom to believe, and so are sometimes formulating policy based on their own perceptions of reality—which often is that the US will pull back from its long-time global security role. The result could be the formation of alliances that otherwise would not have taken place.
This is not a new theme, but aligns with that laid out in Paul Kennedy’s 1987 classic The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers—when one country gains advantage, other, smaller nations tend over time to gang up collectively and balance out the exercise of power.
An April 29 op-ed in the New York Times calls the probable continuation of a US security role “The Dark Side of Energy Independence.” Even if the US buys not a drop of oil from the Middle East, Levi said, it is likely to retain long-term interest in Israel’s security. And in the interest of allies that, having no shale, still rely on Persian Gulf oil, Washington will continue to patrol the oil-laden sea lanes.