Obama-Romney Debate a Chance to Delve Into Global Energy

Coral Davenport
National Journal

While President Obama and Mitt Romney have done plenty of sparring over domestic energy-policy  issues—such as gasoline prices and who would drill more on public lands—they should both be prepared in Monday’s foreign-policy debate to lay out how they’ll take on the fundamentals of a rapidly changing world energy economy.

The global energy landscape confronting the next president is very different from the one that faced the candidates battling for the White House just four years ago—and it raises a host of complex new foreign-policy questions.

“You have to go back a long time to find a four-year period where the energy scene has changed so dramatically,” said Michael Levi, an energy-policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We don’t just have shifting views on old policy debates, we have debates on issues that didn’t exist four years ago. Because of the political and economic situations, we’ve only been talking about energy domestically, but we haven’t scratched the surface internationally.”

Among the new international energy challenges facing the next president: Asia’s growing thirst for oil means that for the first time in history, developing economies such as China and India will consume more energy than the developed world—and compete aggressively with the U.S. for finite oil resources. The new explosion in U.S. natural-gas production offers opportunities for U.S. companies abroad—and raises questions as companies consider exporting the resource. Melting Arctic sea ice is opening up a new rush to drill for oil in the treacherous north—and possibly setting the stage for future environmental catastrophes. And underlying it all is the increasingly urgent problem of climate change caused by burning the coal, oil, and gas that fuel the global economy—but which scientists say could soon lead to catastrophic extreme weather, rising sea levels, and other disasters.

In a speech on Thursday on “Energy Diplomacy in the Twenty-First Century,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spelled out many of those changes and said that her successor will need to place global energy policy at the heart of U.S. foreign policy.

“Energy will be one of the profound issues shaping the 21st century, and we are changing our foreign policy to reflect that,” said Clinton, who has said she expects to retire as the nation’s top diplomat no matter who wins the presidential election.

“Today, energy cuts across the entirety of U.S. foreign policy. It rests at the core of geopolitics. It’s an issue of wealth and power…. It is a matter of national security and global stability. It is at the heart of the global economy and is key to economic development. It’s even an issue of democracy and human rights,” she said.

While energy resources have long played a role in global conflict and diplomacy, their role is increasing and changing.

“This is a moment of profound change ... it raises complex questions about the direction we’re heading,” Clinton said.

Over the last year, Clinton has significantly elevated the role of energy as a driver of foreign policy. Last year, Clinton created the State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources, charged with forging energy-driven foreign policy around the globe. In the coming weeks, she said, she will be sending out policy guidance to U.S. embassies to elevate reporting on energy and increase outreach to international energy partners.

Among the biggest changes: While the U.S. was the world’s biggest energy consumer and fossil-fuel polluter throughout the last century, China surpassed it in that role two years ago. Studies show that as China, India, and other developing nations continue to grow in the coming decades, the energy resources they choose could have a profound effect on the fate of the global economy—and the planet.

Growing Asian economies are fueled by an increasing appetite for oil, which could send demand and prices higher, dramatically increasing the pollution that causes climate change. It will be essential for the United States and its corporations, Clinton said, to be involved in driving the choices of new global energy consumers.

“The transformation to cleaner energy is central to the 21st-century economy,” she said. “1.3 billion people don’t have access to energy—we have the technology and know-how that can help people leapfrog to energy that is reliable and affordable but also clean and efficient.”

Meanwhile, U.S. businesses are benefiting from a surge in domestic natural-gas production brought about by breakthroughs in “fracking” technology. That boom could have a major impact on the world’s energy future, because natural gas has only about half the carbon emissions of coal. Today, U.S. companies are now working in China and Europe to help those countries develop shale gas, which could also help the U.S. achieve strategic geopolitical goals. Russia, the chief supplier of natural gas to Europe, has long wielded that resource as a power lever. But the State Department has created new initiatives for U.S. companies to help European countries develop their own natural-gas resources, which could limit Russia’s power. That’s good for the U.S., but it could also increase environmental concerns about the impact of fracking on water quality.

Another change to the global energy picture: Melting sea ice due to climate change has opened up the Arctic Ocean to oil drilling, and countries are rushing to be the first to exploit the resource. “The Arctic is a frontier of oil and gas—and also a potential catastrophe. It’s critical we act now to set the rules of the road.” Clinton said. “Four years ago, these issues didn’t have much currency, but now they’re seen as increasingly important.”

No matter who is the next president, the problem of climate change will need to be confronted. Many U.S. politicians, including Romney, have questioned whether oil and gas emissions contribute to climate change, but those views are out of step with the research of thousands of scientists across the globe. Meanwhile, more leaders in other nations are growing increasingly frustrated with the United States for failing to enact climate policy. Next month, at an annual United Nations summit on climate change, it’s expected that the U.S. will once again come under fire from the rest of the world for dragging its feet on the issue.

Although Obama and Romney have sparred repeatedly over domestic energy issues on the campaign trail, they have said little about how they would approach energy as a foreign-policy matter, let alone lay out how they would address climate change. But both of those issues will be at the heart of the nation’s foreign-policy future, and Monday’s debate provides an opportunity for some serious discussion.