How the US Energy Boom Is Harming Foreign Policy
Proponents of Keystone XL have sought to exploit the growing Sino-American rivalry by claiming that failure to build the pipeline will prompt Canada to sell its tar sands oil to China—something Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has threatened to do. Disapproval of Keystone, the House Foreign Affairs committee members suggested in their letter to Obama, will “enhance the fortunes of economic rivals, as Chinese state-owned oil companies and others race to secure permanent access to North American energy sources.”
What additional forms petro-machismo will take in the coming years cannot be foreseen. There is little doubt, however, that growing US reliance on domestic and Canadian energy—with the possibility of significant exports looming on the horizon—is affecting the tone and character of US foreign policy.
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For those who despair at Washington’s diminished strength abroad, there is much to applaud in this fresh burst of geopolitical vigor. Proponents of expanded US liquefied natural- gas exports, for example, argue that such sales will help undercut Russia’s dominant position in the European gas market and decrease its political clout—a stance that will no doubt be given added vigor in response to Russia’s recent moves in Crimea.
It would be exceedingly unwise, however, for US policy-makers to equate an increase in domestic oil output with a blank check to bully China, Russia and other rivals. The Chinese and Russians are, in fact, worried about the geopolitical implications of increased US energy output, and are taking steps to address this concern—the Chinese by importing more oil and gas by land, the Russians by selling more of their energy to Asia. Neither, however, is likely to be intimidated by Washington: if anything, they are likely to react antagonistically and to seek means for countering any perceived US advantage—in ways that could prove highly dangerous for all. Growing Chinese naval assertiveness in the East and South China seas is one obvious response to the pivot strategy; stronger military ties between China and Russia are another. In the end, Washington will find it harder to advance its security interests in these areas, not easier.
We should be wary of embracing the argument that an increase in US and Canadian energy production automatically translates into renewed geopolitical advantage, giving the president leeway to behave more aggressively in the international arena. Machismo is bad enough in male-female relations, but it is far worse in international relations—especially when it involves behavior that is seen as threatening to the vital interests of rival states, prompting them to engage in risky countermoves.
There is a message for environmentalists here as well. The environmental arguments against Keystone XL and other such endeavors are well-known: completion of the pipeline and/or expansion of the rail lines carrying tar sands oil to the United States will increase the emissions of greenhouse gases and pose a severe threat to the nation’s farmland, water and human safety. The national security aspects of the debate are less familiar—at least outside the universe of think tanks and lobbying groups that are loudly trumpeting the geopolitical advantages of increased North American energy output. To succeed in the national debate, environmental activists must deconstruct these claims and highlight their flaws. This means, in particular, showing that prioritizing geopolitics over the environment ensures neither increased security nor a healthy economy.
By encouraging overseas adventurism, the pursuit of geopolitical advantage through energy independence creates an increased threat to US national security. The more that Keystone XL and fracking are defined as geopolitical assets, the greater the risk that rival powers will seek countervailing measures to offset any perceived US advantage. Similarly, plans to boost US exports of shale oil and gas could benefit US allies but raise fuel prices at home. The same is also true for the expected increase in exports of refined products made from all those tar sands imported from Canada.
But more important are the national security consequences of increased greenhouse gas emissions resulting from greater reliance on fossil fuels—especially carbon-dense fuels like bitumen. By accelerating the pace of emissions, increased consumption of bitumen will ensure that climate change occurs with even greater fury than previously assumed, posing an intensified threat to the safety and survival of US cities, farms, forests and coastlines. No other challenge we face even comes close in severity, scale and proximity. To speak of a “national security” benefit from Keystone XL is to open the gates to national devastation and ruin.