Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson has made energy independence a recurring theme in his campaign for U.S. Senate. On his site, Thompson, a Republican, has outlined a plan to “Restore America,” which he claims would spur economic growth and make the country independent from foreign oil.
The main objectives of Thompson’s Restore America plan are to build the Keystone pipeline, which the U.S. Department of State reports would pump crude oil from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, across the continental U.S. to Texas, explore oil and natural gas deposits in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico and expand natural gas production with the use of “fracking,” which is short for “natural gas extraction by means of hydraulic fracturing.”
His plan criticizes environmental regulations and restrictions to natural resource development. He notes that “The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world that puts most of its shoreline and vast areas of wilderness out of reach for energy developers” and asserts “The regulatory approval process must be streamlined.” Thompson’s campaign also points out that expanding the “fracking” industry is in Wisconsin’s economic interest — Wisconsin has numerous mines that produce the fine sand used the hydraulic fracturing process.
In his advocacy of national energy independence, Thompson has brought a perennial issue of national economic security to the forefront. The problem of American dependence on foreign oil has been a constant cause of concern for the past few decades, and a satisfactory resolution is still nowhere to be found.
The problem of energy dependence is twofold. Because of the U.S. economy’s reliance on imports from major oil producers in the Middle East, volatility and uncertainty in those markets due to geopolitical turmoil has a major impact on the economy. Because essentially all domestic industries rely on oil in some way, shape or form, wild fluctuations in the price of a barrel of oil send ripples through the U.S. economy, and such ripples are generally undesirable.
As PolitiFact reports, Thompson recently claimed that “Every time … a penny goes up on that gasoline cost … it’s a billion dollars out of our economy that goes to Saudi Arabia.” While numerous experts have found this billion dollar estimate to be a hyperbole — Charles Ebinger, who works for the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, estimated about $130 million per year — Thompson’s argument is qualitatively correct. Volatile oil markets have a massive impact on the way money flows in and out of the U.S.
On the other hand, the Climate Policy Initiative notes the billions of dollars the U.S. spends on oil each year into the checkbooks of some of the most oppressive governments in the world.
According to Friedman’s First Law of Petropolitics, as noted by Foreign Policy, “The price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions in oil-rich petrolist states.” This implies that American dependence on foreign oil from countries that are rich in petroleum but poor in freedom is inconsistent with the ideals of U.S. foreign policy — and for that matter, the ideals which form the foundation of American political philosophy.
It’s easy to identify the problem of energy dependence, but so far, finding a solution that everyone can agree upon has been almost impossible. Thompson makes an astute observation: At current levels of consumption, it is not possible for the U.S. to satisfy its gas needs without exploring domestic oil and natural gas deposits. The only two options are to spend abroad or drill at home. The solution presented in Thompson’s Restore America plan is to drill at home.
Expanding oil and natural gas exploration in the U.S. may be part of a comprehensive national plan for energy independence, but it is a one-dimensional solution to a three-dimensional problem. Increasing domestic production of oil and natural gas will reduce American dependence on foreign imports — but efforts to develop renewable energy sources and curb consumption are equally important. An effort to reduce energy consumption represents the simplest way to move toward energy independence, and it would be effective immediately. Renewable energy will not only reduce dependence on foreign oil today; it will prepare America for the inevitable “End of Oil.”
Thompson acknowledges that these sources have long-term potential but claims “those sources must be developed and commercialized in the context of the free-market system — not through government market manipulation.”
This sounds all well to a fiscally conservative Republican, but there are numerous reasons that the free market is incapable of fully developing renewable energy. First of all, there is no free market; it’s as artificial as an ideal gas or a frictionless pulley. Second of all, the free market is driven by the wants and needs of the immediate present. It isn’t capable of altruistically determining what will be best 50 years from now, and that’s why government investment in renewable energy is a necessary part of any forward looking energy policy, and one that is lacking in Thompson’s plan.
While Thompson’s path to energy independence is fundamentally flawed and amounts to an eloquent statement of the “Drill Baby, Drill” philosophy, the fact that he is actively working towards a solution to one of the biggest unsolved problems in American foreign policy demands respect.
Charles Godfrey ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in math and physics.