NPR's Tom Gjelten had a story on Morning Edition today (1/25/12) that made an important point about a prominent fallacy in the energy debate–and then spent the second half of the story falling into the exact same fallacy.
The story questioned the constant use of the phrase "energy independence" in political discussions of U.S. energy policy. Gjelten noted:
In truth, it would be virtually impossible for any country to be totally independent where energy is concerned. Not only would it have to produce all its own oil; it would also have to be independent of the global economy.
Like sugar, wheat, gold and other commodities, oil is also bought and sold on a global market. All the oil produced in the world becomes part of the global oil supply; all the oil used comes out of that supply. The global oil price depends on the supply/demand relation, and the price is essentially the same for all countries.
So far, so good–that's critical context that is usually missing when politicians talk about "energy independence," and is particularly vital when this "independence" is linked, explicitly or implicitly, to energy prices. As Gjelten explains (with a handy metaphor about swimming pools), where oil comes from has very little bearing on how much it costs to fill up your tank.
But then Gjelten goes on to say that there is a legitimate reason to be concerned about where your energy is produced–and, the report suggests, to support "new techniques for extracting oil and gas from hard-to-reach deposits," such as fracking and tar sands. That reason is "energy security." Gjelten again:
If a country produces as much oil as it uses, it is less vulnerable to some foreign country shutting the tap…. The U.S. learned the importance of "energy security" in 1973, when Arab countries imposed an oil boycott on the United States to protest its military support for Israel in its war against Egypt and Syria. Americans were soon waiting in long lines at gas stations.
But "energy security" based on oil production has the exact same problem as "energy independence": Oil is a global commodity. If a major oil producer shuts off production, whether or not they sell directly to the United States, they'll cause the world price of oil to soar–and that will inevitably be reflected in the price paid at the pump. Where the oil comes from is irrelevant for "security" just as much as for "independence." (If a country halted physical shipments of oil to the United States, that could cause short-term disruptions–but that's what the strategic petroleum reserve is for.)
Why didn't Gjelten notice that the argument he makes in the first half of his story contradicted the main idea of the second half? Perhaps he could have looked for sources with independence from the energy industry. The story relies on two experts: One is Amy Jaffe, described as "executive director of energy and sustainability at the University of California, Davis"–and not described as having spent the last 16 years, until this month, as director of the Baker Institute Energy Forum, a think tank sponsored by ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, etc. Her new post is a joint appointment with UC Davis' Institute of Transportation Studies, whose board of advisers include representatives of ExxonMobil, BP, Shell…. You can sort of see why she would be unlikely to say: "Drill for more oil domestically? Nah, there really isn't any point."
Nor would that likely be the viewpoint of Gjelten's other source, Roger Altman, ID'ed as someone who "served as deputy Treasury secretary under President Clinton" and is "now the chairman of Evercore Partners, an investment banking firm." Unmentioned, but relevant to the story, is the fact that Evercore has a special focus on the energy industry; the firm "catapulted…to fourth place among advisers on oil and gas mergers this year," Bloomberg reported in 2011 (10/24/11).
Jaffe is definitely an expert on energy, and Altman no doubt knows a great deal about the subject as well. But they both have connections to the industry that would make it difficult for them to say that there's no particular national interest served in expanded domestic production. If Gjelten had talked to an independent critic of the fossil fuel industry, he might have gotten a different answer–and likely one that was more intellectually coherent.
Of course, since NPR receives corporate sponsorship from the likes of CITGO and America's Natural Gas Alliance, its reporters may not perceive receiving money from fossil fuel industries as the conflict of interest that it is.