Energy independence — the subject of this month’s Minnesota International Center’s “Great Decisions” dialogue — has long been a bipartisan national objective. The energy revolution, driven in part by transformative technologies like fracking, has moved the country closer to that goal than it has been in generations. And soon the United States will be the world’s largest producer of liquid petroleum, according to an International Energy Agency analysis reported in the Financial Times.
So why doesn’t if feel like it?
Why, in a January Pew poll, were only 48 percent of Americans aware of increasing domestic energy production?
The answer — just like the oil market itself — is complex.
“Oil is a fungible, globally traded commodity,” said Elizabeth Wilson, associate professor of energy and environmental policy and law at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. That fact helps explain why the increase in domestic drilling doesn’t necessarily mean an immediate decrease at the pump — the one place people might consistently consider energy issues.
Wilson acknowledges that the rise in North American production has “huge implications” for U.S. energy security. But, she adds, overall demand is driven by development in Asia and other parts of the world with more dynamic economies.
Beyond global markets, geopolitics might be a factor in the subdued public reaction. The oil boom “represents a somewhat surprising, dramatic shift in our energy situation,” said Tom Hanson, a former Foreign Service officer who is now diplomat in residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Hanson, who will speak at a Great Decisions Conference on Energy Independence on Friday, said that drilling in the Midwest won’t keep us out of the Mideast.
“Becoming less dependent on oil won’t necessarily extricate us from that region, because there are other reasons why we are involved there,” Hanson said, citing ISIL and other terror threats, as well as America’s strong bond with Israel. “And the other spinoff is the energy factor is important to our allies in the region. Even as we become less dependent, it is still in the context of our alliance with the Europeans and Japan.” That context, Hanson said, was a “reality check” on the Obama administration’s planned pivot to Asia.
There are still other dynamics driving American ambivalence. One complexity is that the good news about domestic fossil-fuel production competes with concern over climate change. This often results in “two very different messages,” said Wilson.
“One is that we should always have cheap energy prices forever, and the other is that climate change is a real risk from a military security perspective, a real risk from an economic growth perspective, a real existential threat to life for many people. Reconciling that to our addiction to cheap energy is troubling — or at least difficult.”
This difficulty is magnified by media optics.
For instance, images from the 1970s of gas lines and “oil sheiks” opening OPEC meetings are seared into the memories of those of a certain age. So despite the Bakken boom in North Dakota or more offshore drilling, depicting the drive for energy independence is more difficult journalistically — and politically — than portraying an oil embargo.
“Some images have been taken out of the lexicon because they have been tainted,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.
Because of oil-spill disasters such as the Exxon Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon, the response to images of oil tankers or offshore oil rigs are mixed, at best. Framing fracking is challenging, too. But that doesn’t mean that the energy industry isn’t influencing public perception. Jamieson cited ad campaigns for BP and the natural gas industry that she said look like “straight-up commercial advertising” but are actually “agenda-setting.”
“The images you are seeing in these two big campaigns are trying to put a new iconic structure underlying the energy argument,” Jamieson said. “The first allies forms of energy that come from fossil fuels with solar. The second is trying to ally oil with jobs. So it’s out there and it’s powerful stuff. It’s an associative argument — you link things up.”
Indeed, linking things up — be it domestic drilling and international economics, less Mideast oil but more Mideast war, abundant energy and a growing threat from climate change, or oil and solar and oil and jobs — can result in a desultory response to the revolution in U.S. energy production.
So while some in society may be unaware of increasing energy independence, others may be uncertain how to interpret a story much richer than the price at the pump.
“Actually the questions are so much bigger and so much more embedded in the fabric of society,” said Wilson, who added, “and so much harder to address.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. on Friday on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.