There's more to energy independence than phasing out foreign oil

Keith Gaby

It’s time to update our definition of energy independence.

As the United States increasingly relies on domestic sources of energy, we need to recognize that the traditional formulation of independence falls short.

A true calculation of our national energy freedom would include the way other nations produce their own power. I’ll explain.

The other economic threat

For decades, the specter of hostile nations controlling the energy that fuels our economy has been seen as a threat to our security, prosperity and diplomatic freedom. We don’t want other countries to be in a position that could threaten our economy.

So it’s good news that the U.S. is increasingly in control of our own energy. But it’s also critically important that decisions made in foreign capitals don’t damage our economy by driving climate change.

Emissions have no borders

Climate change is extremely expensive. Citibank estimates that the global price tag will be more than $40 trillion if we don’t take action.

And since we have the largest economy in the world, trillions of that cost will be here in America. So if, say, Russia decides not to limit its emissions, or Brazil reverses course and devastates the Amazon, our economy suffers.

That means we need to face the fact that as we gain control over where our energy comes from, we can’t ignore the impact from how other countries power their economies.

If India or Germany abandoned its commitment to the Paris climate agreement, it would cause serious long-term disruption to our economic future, and there’d be nothing we could do about it. The same would go for their economies, of course, if the U.S. walked away from its pledge to cut emissions.

The economic trouble would not be as immediate as when OPEC cut off oil in the 1970s, but the damage would be even greater.

The full measure of economic sovereignty

First, economists need to develop a new measure of energy independence – by combining the degree to which we rely on foreign sources of energy with global progress toward our pollution reduction targets. It would, in turn, inspire smarter policies because pursuing energy independence by its current measure can create new problems, even as it solves old ones.

Second, we need to accelerate international momentum toward those targets. The commitments in Paris were a big achievement, but much more needs to be done.

We must take advantage of the mechanism in the Paris agreement that prompts nations to increase their efforts. It also means dealing with the fact that methane leaks are driving 25 percent of current global warming.

Relying less on other countries for our energy is great, but it’s not the full measure of our economic sovereignty. And the sooner we can measure our true energy independence correctly, the sooner we can meet goals that will keep us strong and prosperous.