Do National Security and Environmental Energy Policies Conflict?

Sunday, July 22, 2007
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Individuals and groups support government regulation of energy use either because they are concerned about the negative effects of oil, gas, and other fossil fuels on the environment or because they are concerned about the impact of demand for these fuels on national security. Prospects for political consensus on energy policies are dim for the many approaches that further one of these causes at the expense of the other.

Environmental-driven energy policies try to reduce pollution from cars, from the generation of electric power, and from other industrial and household activities. An obvious example is the current effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the use of fossil fuels, especially oil and coal. National security energy policies may try to reduce the vulnerability of energy sources to hostile acts, such as interference with oil or gas imports, or to disruptions at the source, such as with Middle Eastern oil supplies or the supply of natural gas from Russia. National security also depends on how much revenue is received by oil- and gas-producing countries that may support terrorism or are vulnerable to potential takeover by terrorist organizations.

Making the supply of energy sources more reliable in order to promote national security often conflicts with the goal of reducing pollution. For example, China and the United States have abundant supplies of coal, and their further development and use would make the energy used by both countries less dependent on foreign supplies. However, coal-fired power plants emit large amounts of carbon dioxide that are thought by many to be an important contributor to global warming. The burning of coal also contributes significantly to local pollution, mainly through the emission of sulfur dioxide gases. These local emissions can be greatly reduced through known technologies that involve installing expensive scrubbers that might not be used by poorer countries.

Some security specialists advocate that the United States shift more of its demand for oil and natural gas to friendly sources in the Western Hemisphere, such as Canada and Mexico, in order to reduce the vulnerability of its energy imports to hostile acts. Such a shift, however, would not improve the environmental impact of America’s use of oil and gas; nor would it do anything to reduce the revenue from the sale of oil and gas by Middle Eastern and other potentially unfriendly states, for the world price of these fuels should not be affected by much, if at all, by shifts of U.S. demand to nearby friendly nations. Countries that would have bought oil and gas from, say, Canada and Mexico would now have to buy more of these fuels from Middle Eastern or other potentially unfriendly producers to make up for the shortfall.

Fortunately, various governmental policies contribute to both environmental and national security goals. A tax on carbon emissions from business and household production would not only help reduce global warming—by how much is still controversial—but also lower the world prices of these fuels through reducing the demand for fossil fuels. Lower prices would cut the revenues received by Middle Eastern states from the sale of oil and natural gas. This is why a carbon tax receives support from many environmentalists and national security advocates.

There are many ways to make the supply of energy sources more reliable in order to promote national security.

Nuclear power also gets high marks on national security grounds (although not necessarily on international security grounds) as well as on many environmental issues. Nuclear power is clean and does not emit carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, or other gases that contribute to global or local pollution. Accidents and natural events that release radioactive materials from nuclear power plants are a risk, such as with the 2007 earthquake in Nigata prefecture in northwestern Japan that caused a leak of apparently low-level radiation from a nuclear power plant. But serious accidents have been very rare because so many precautions are taken in state-ofthe- art plants. The worst accident occurred at Cherynobyl, Ukraine, in a plant that had minimal and primitive safety measures. Although safety is not a big issue in nuclear power plants in economically advanced countries, it may well be for some of the many plants currently under construction in China and India.

The disposal of nuclear waste, either through reuse or burial deep in former mines or far under oceans, may also present major environmental challenges. Clearly, reuse of much of the waste is feasible: France, a major producer of nuclear power, reuses most of its waste. My conclusion from reading some of the literature on disposal is that safe burial is also feasible, especially for large countries such as the United States and China, but that view is not universally accepted.

Nuclear power has many advantages on national security grounds. The supply of uranium, unlike oil, is widespread and abundant, and there is little risk that any single or small number of uranium-producing countries can blackmail other countries by withholding supplies. The international security issues from nuclear power relate to countries that as yet do not have arsenals of nuclear weapons. If these countries develop nuclear power, they will automatically generate the plutonium necessary to construct nuclear bombs. If some of that plutonium fell into the hands of rogue states or terrorist groups, the risk of possibly millions of deaths from nuclear attacks becomes scary.

Driven by environmental and security concerns, more extensive government intervention in the supply and demand for energy is to be expected during the next few years in all economically important countries. Policies that meet both these concerns are feasible and clearly would have greater political support than the many approaches that advance one of these goals at the expense of the other.