Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Energy Independence Doesn’t Mean What It Used To

And here’s why that’s a national security issue.

By , an active duty military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, and , the program manager for the Supply Chain Transparency Initiative at the Payne Institute for Public Policy.
Electric energy-generating wind turbines are on a wind farm.
Electric energy-generating wind turbines are on a wind farm in the San Gorgonio Pass area near Palm Springs, California, on Earth Day, April 22, 2016. David Mcnew/AFP via Getty Images

For decades, U.S. policymakers failed to understand the full meaning of energy independence. Their definition centered on the need for a self-sufficient supply of cheap oil and gas. That understanding was so dominant it became a matter of national security—eclipsing nearly all other environmental considerations. U.S. President Joe Biden is making a different bet.

Biden realizes two things. First, climate change is its own national security threat; second, real energy independence now means securing the resources and ideas needed for 21st-century energy technologies—among other things, solar panels, rare-earth metals, batteries, and wind turbines.

Yet although the Biden administration has made great strides forward with this acknowledgment, its climate strategy has room to grow. As climate change continues to destabilize at-risk regions worldwide, threatening to draw the United States into more protracted, international conflicts, the administration needs to do more to treat climate change as a matter of national security rather than as just an environmental concern—and to move toward true energy independence in the process.

For decades, U.S. policymakers failed to understand the full meaning of energy independence. Their definition centered on the need for a self-sufficient supply of cheap oil and gas. That understanding was so dominant it became a matter of national security—eclipsing nearly all other environmental considerations. U.S. President Joe Biden is making a different bet.

Biden realizes two things. First, climate change is its own national security threat; second, real energy independence now means securing the resources and ideas needed for 21st-century energy technologies—among other things, solar panels, rare-earth metals, batteries, and wind turbines.

Yet although the Biden administration has made great strides forward with this acknowledgment, its climate strategy has room to grow. As climate change continues to destabilize at-risk regions worldwide, threatening to draw the United States into more protracted, international conflicts, the administration needs to do more to treat climate change as a matter of national security rather than as just an environmental concern—and to move toward true energy independence in the process.


For too long, policymakers thought the oil and gas industry was the key to energy independence. They gave the industry special treatment, allowing it to operate with minimal environmental restrictions in an effort to boost the economy and unshackle the country from its reliance on foreign hydrocarbons. From one perspective, that made sense: The oil and gas boom that began in the early 2000s, with the advent of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), made the United States the largest oil producer in the world. It provided a significant windfall to the economy and enabled the country to cut its reliance on foreign oil and gas in half.

However, this traditional promotion—and conception—of energy independence ignored the pressing issue of climate change. The United States failed to effectively diversify its energy portfolio, and now, it lags behind other nations in renewables. This oversight has become a liability. Other countries are outright refusing to buy U.S. natural gas for being “too dirty”; carbon border adjustments, or tariffs on products with high carbon emissions, threaten to disrupt the competitive advantage U.S.-made products have; and now, sourcing the materials from abroad to build renewables has become trickier than it was before.

As hydrocarbons become less of a geopolitical priority, the meaning of “energy independence” is changing—in ways that have made it hard for the United States to keep up. It’s no longer measured by oil extraction, but by new, low-carbon energy technologies, such as solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and even responsibly sourced natural gas.

China has the power to influence U.S. energy production, defense technologies, and other industries.

Although U.S. policymakers dithered for the past 30 years, the country continued to lag behind the competition for these newer technologies and the critical minerals needed to build them. And China has rushed ahead. It’s now responsible for more than half of the world’s solar panel module exports, and it controls, for instance, 80 percent of the world’s battery material refining and 77 percent of the world’s battery cell capacity.

By now, Washington relies on other nations—especially China—for the critical mineral imports needed to build everything from electric vehicles to solar panels and wind turbines. Limitations on these minerals can make it harder to adopt low-carbon technologies and can leave Washington vulnerable to the whims and desires of those nations. China, essentially, has the power to influence U.S. energy production, defense technologies, and other industries that rely on the same critical materials.

Meanwhile, as the United States continues to be the second largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, climate change has amplified everything from humanitarian crises that drag Washington into protracted foreign conflicts to the growth of terrorist organizations that threaten domestic security.

According to the Climate Impact Lab, some nations, including Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria, could see more than a 20 percent reduction in their GDPs by 2090 due to climate change as they face deaths from heat waves, famines, floods, and crumpling infrastructure from storms and rising sea levels. The destruction wrought by these changes can be a catalyst for humanitarian crises, genocide, and terrorism. For instance, competition over depleting resources can worsen regional fighting, as it did in 1994 when arable land shortages contributed to the genocide in Rwanda. It can also spark conflict, as it did in Syria in 2007 when drought was linked to the nation’s protests and subsequent revolution.

The last two decades have shown it is increasingly difficult for Washington to stay out of international conflicts—either because they pose a direct threat to the United States, as the stability of Afghanistan did, or because they make the country vulnerable to criticism that it is complacent in the face of international travesties, as it was during the revolution in Syria.

Since he took office, Biden has started to rectify these issues. Of course, he decided to rejoin the Paris Agreement on the first day of his term, but his administration has already done much more to prioritize both the need to transition to renewables and the need to address the threat of climate change.

Through a string of recent executive orders, Biden signaled he recognizes the risks of relying on oil and gas by regulating methane emissions for the industry and prioritizing renewables. For instance, his order in February to create more resilient critical supply chains directed federal agencies to identify ways to secure domestic supply chains to boost climate leadership—although right now, it’s not clear how effective the order will be. It’s not the first executive order on critical minerals, and the U.S. Energy Department and other agencies have been consistently funding such research for decades, including $30 million for critical minerals research this past March, which hasn’t done nearly enough to address the country’s import dependence.

Meanwhile, Washington’s national security establishment has begun to again take climate change and its effects on war and conflict seriously. For more than a decade, it has vacillated on this position with the changing tides of administrations. But this year, things are different. The U.S. Defense Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have openly expressed concern about climate change’s role as a “threat multiplier” to existing conflicts. And the Pentagon went even further, saying it would factor climate change into its future war games and signaled it is beginning to make plans for decarbonizing the military.


The Biden administration is making progress in the right direction, but more concerted and accelerated action is needed to stave off the threats of climate change and secure the United States’ energy future.

First of all, formal recognition of climate change as a direct national security threat means it should be treated as such. This starts in the most obvious place: significant domestic cuts in emissions. Unilateral action by the United States would make a substantial dent in global emissions and help rebuild international trust in Washington’s commitment to tackle environmental challenges—trust damaged by the last administration. And like it would for other global challenges, Washington needs to do more to coordinate a global response in the United Nations and NATO. For instance, it was promising to see NATO identify the importance of preparing partner nations for climate change, but to hedge off its globally destabilizing effects, NATO would need to prepare plans for how it can help other parts of the world adapt as well.

Formal recognition of climate change as a direct national security threat means it should be treated as such.

Second, while the oil and gas industry will remain an important part of the country’s energy sector, the U.S. government needs to leave it alone and let the market work itself out. Europe’s carbon border adjustment means the export of many goods, not just oil and gas, from the United States will suffer because of the industry’s unwillingness to comply with global carbon standards. Fortunately, natural gas exporters have begun looking into how they can ask companies to clean up their supply chains, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has started to look into better regulating carbon disclosures. That would provide financial incentives for companies to develop better practices and make it easier to identify which companies don’t align with international climate goals. As long as the U.S. government doesn’t interfere, the market will cull the worst offenders, and the country’s energy sector will be stronger for it.

Furthermore, even more work needs to be done to prioritize renewables. The United States must further strengthen supply chains, as the pandemic demonstrated, and devote resources to the mining and sourcing of critical minerals. The Biden administration recognized this when it ordered a review of the country’s supply chains, but implementing some of the recommendations provided by the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Energy, and Defense will not be easy, including rebuilding the country’s “production and innovation capabilities” to develop critical minerals. For Washington to make progress, it will have to convince mining industry partners to move away from safer investments, such as gold and copper, and into commodities with more unstable prices, such as cobalt and lithium. This will require the government to offer procurement agreements and tax breaks to the mining industry—policies similarly enacted in the past to subsidize the U.S. oil and gas industry.

Given the coming risks, the Biden administration would be wise to enact these changes as soon as possible. That means marshaling the entire country’s resources to combat the country’s—and the world’s—runaway emissions, just like it has for the pandemic and major military campaigns. Only through such concerted action can the nation protect its national security interests and remain truly energy independent.

Parker Bolstad is an active duty military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army. He is a former research assistant at the Brookings Institution and the Congressional Research Service and is a graduate of the Colorado School of Mines. The views expressed in this piece are those of the service member. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the U.S. government, the U.S. Defense Department, or the U.S. Army.

Jordy Lee is the program manager for the Supply Chain Transparency Initiative at the Payne Institute for Public Policy.

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