Pragmatism above Partisanship

By Kolby Hoagland | October 18, 2013

The 40th Anniversary of the 1973 oil crisis came this week at a time that reminds us of the precarious nature of politics and its influence on economic stability. The government shutdown and debt ceiling debate differ greatly from the near nuclear war and oil embargo that started forty years ago and lasted until Dec., 1974. Yet, as we were forty years ago, western society, the U.S. in particular, remains entangled in the Middle East for energy and alliances. The lives and trillions of dollars spent to preserve the U.S. government’s presence in the Middle East continue to neglect a clear strategy towards a positive end. In the same vein, the stubbornness of republicans and debt spending tendencies of democrats seem to meander down a similar ambiguous path that maintains our presence in the Middle East. War, diminishing returns on oil, and climate change confound society, but, at the same time, these predicaments do not prompt policy makers to act quickly in a manner that realizes tangible solutions. This week’s DataPoints Blog highlights the predicaments in which we exist and a discussion on the pursuit of solutions.   

The way we acquire and use energy, particularly fossil forms, is implicated in many of society’s current woes. A recent scientific study reinforces the looming calamity that climate change will wreck on oceans if GHG emissions are not curbed significantly. War and society’s pursuit of oil in the Middle East is an unstoppable theme in the region, resulting in an estimated 1.7 million deaths from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone. If war and climate were not enough, the economic longevity of fossil energy is proving unreliable. The diminishing marginal return on the recovery of oil, as the easy-to-extract reserves dwindle, makes fueling the U.S. economy increasingly expensive. The cost to simply operate the economy, let alone grow and generate greater profits, increases with the average price of oil, coal, and natural gas. As fossil sources become squeezed, the volatility of fuel prices plays havoc on the overall health of the economy. Technological advances, such as directional drilling and fracking, got us out of the previous natural gas price spike in 2007, but limited resources are inherently limited and will eventually become too expensive to pump or mine.  While war and climate change threaten our humanity’s general well-being, fossil energy sources, particularly oil, are evolving away from the cheap energy sources that allowed rapid growth of the economy in the 20th Century. Are these crises big enough for us to act on a broad and effective scale?

The lessons learned from the 1973 oil crisis continue to play out as violence and a siege on normalcy prevail in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Israel. The production of energy, particularly oil, has changed in reaction to the 1973 oil crisis with greater production national production, strategic reserves, and non-OPEC partners. Unfortunately, unwelcome externalities continue to ensue the considerable benefits that modern society had derived from oil and other fossil fuels. Efficiency gains offer strategies of reducing costs and the total consumption of fossil energy, but efficiency does nothing to reduce our ultimate dependence on fossil energy sources to run the economy. The pursuit of renewable energy aims to replace fossil sources and reduces society’s need to pursue costly, high stakes fossil energy recovery strategies, whether it is deep sea drilling, fracking, or mining of methane clathrate. Together, energy efficiency and renewable energy must be united in an overall policy scheme for it to be effective over time. Whether it’s CAFE standards or RFS II, the potential of each policy to induce successful results is maximized when discussion around them is founded on the intertwined relationship of climate, energy, and the economy. The complexity of their interdependence must be accepted and pragmatically addressed by policy makers. Single minded policy measures that are founded on partisanship causes issues that lead society into avoidable crises.

The oil crisis of 1973 caused policy makers to react, and they in turn made the U.S. less susceptible to price escalation of oil from OPEC. We can only hope that the current crises encourage rational pragmatism above partisanship in order for long-term strategies to be implemented. Shooting from the hip as crises arise only works consistently in the movies.