National security comes roaring back as argument for climate policy

Executive Editor

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is catapulting a dormant argument for climate policy to the top of everyone’s mind: national security.

In 2009 and 2010, the last time Congress considered comprehensive climate legislation, the U.S. was beginning to import liquefied natural gas, oil imports were persistently high and the prospect of peak oil seemed imminent.

One of the most compelling arguments to pass a big climate bill back then wasn’t that it would reduce emissions or even create jobs—it was to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.

Then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is now President Biden’s top climate envoy, called a climate bill he co-authored “a national security imperative because it reduces dependence on foreign energy” in a POLITICO 2010 op-ed. “This dependence takes nearly $500 billion a year out of the U.S. economy and ships it to too many countries that don’t share our values.”

But then, around 2010, new extraction technologies began releasing vast reserves of oil and natural gas previously locked in shale rock deep below the ground across the country.

Seemingly overnight, the national security argument for climate policy evaporated and America became the world’s biggest producer of oil and natural gas.

Prices of both commodities collapsed and so did domestic gasoline prices, ushering in a new era of global energy abundance that made it more difficult for various efforts and new clean energy technologies to gain a foothold.

But of course, oil is a global commodity at the whims of geopolitical upheaval and natural gas is increasingly becoming one, too. The argument didn’t evaporate, it just seemed like it—until now.

It’s been a long time since energy was at risk. I think people forgot energy security was a real risk. This is a reminder that it is.
Jason Bordoff, founding director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and former White House adviser under President Obama

Politicians became complacent with plentiful oil. Congress passed at least two laws selling off oil from the nation’s strategic oil reserves to fund other priorities in the middle of the last decade.

Such sales could detract from the original purpose of the reserves, which is to provide relief against supply and price disruptions like the kind we’re experiencing now.

Energy security is roaring back as a top argument for clean energy technologies.

“This crisis is a stark reminder that to protect our economy over the long term, we need to become energy independent,” Biden said Tuesday when announcing the U.S. was going to ban imports of Russian oil. “It should motivate us to accelerate a transition to clean energy.”

Back in 2010 and again today, national security appears to provoke stronger and more widespread concern and thus support for policy change than reducing emissions or even creating jobs.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has expressed concern for months about higher energy prices due to climate policy. In the face of Russia’s aggression, Manchin’s tone dramatically changed.

“If there was a poll being taken and they said, ‘Joe, would you pay 10 cents more per gallon to support the people of Ukraine and stop the support of Russia?’ I would gladly pay 10 cents more per gallon,” Manchin said at a news conference last week.

Gasoline prices are rising much faster and higher than that though; 50 cents or more in some places over just the past week to exceed $4 a gallon for the national average (a record high).

Bordoff said this reflects the difficult reality that America’s political system tends to respond to acute crises but not the “proverbial frogs boiling in the pot”—climate change.

“There is not a lot of support to seeing higher energy prices to facilitate the energy transition, say, through a carbon tax,” Bordoff said. “But there is more willingness to accept higher prices to push back on this horrible Russian aggression.”