Defining energy security

Jan. 23, 2012
Energy security means different things in different places. In countries highly dependent on imported oil and gas, for example, concern about energy security tends to focus on supply.

Energy security means different things in different places. In countries highly dependent on imported oil and gas, for example, concern about energy security tends to focus on supply. In countries with economies based on exported oil and gas, the larger concern is security of demand.

Trade relativism isn’t the only complication. A subject that can seem simple—and often is treated simplistically—can be altogether vexatious.

An international seminar grappled with the complexities of energy security last month in Rome. The Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, an affiliate of the US National Defense University, conducted the 2-day event.

Chatham House rules governed proceedings, meaning participants, including this writer, can use information from the seminar but can’t identify speakers or their affiliations or affiliations of others in the group.

Most participants were government officials and energy specialists from countries in the NESA region and beyond. In expressing their views about energy security, they were not timid.

Although the seminar included presentations on topics relevant to energy security, it made no formal attempt to define the phrase. Discussions nevertheless produced insights that might serve as elements of an expanded definition of “energy security” for anyone caring to formulate one. Some were surprising.

Here are factors of energy security that emerged as one observer noted and thought about them:

Affordability. The importance of price asserted itself quickly in the NESA Center forum’s discussion of energy security. It does so in any realistic conversation about the subject. But not all such conversations are realistic.

Environmental acceptability. Most conversations about energy treat the environment and security as discrete matters to be dealt with accordingly. Maybe that’s because each topic is so big and contentious that treating them as mere parts of a larger whole seems unwieldy beyond hope. Maybe that’s wrong.

Durability of supply. Security means energy flows can withstand and adapt to the interruption of supply. The threat to energy flows can take many forms. In the past few years, major disruptions have come from hurricanes, revolutions, labor strikes, and war. In Rome, talk about what might interrupt energy supplies tended to focus on terrorism.

Diversification of source. Of course, durability of supply improves as the number of suppliers increases. This is easy to see. If terrorism is the main threat to energy flows, diversification lifts the number of targets terrorists must hit if they’re to create general economic havoc. Less noticed in a terrorized age, although no less important, is diversification’s relationship to another element of security: price. The more sellers exist of something, the less able any one seller can be to raise prices without losing customers.

Sufficiency relative to demand. Unmet need does nothing constructive for security; by raising prices, in fact, it does quite the opposite (see above on affordability).

Relationship with water. As an issue of supply security, water is at least as pressing as energy. Increasingly, the two issues are linked. Meeting the world’s growing demand for fresh water requires rising amounts of energy. Meeting growing demand for energy requires rising amounts of water. Arid countries understand these relationships. That some countries represented in Rome are arid helped illuminate an important dynamic of security with which all countries soon will grapple.

Equity among nations. Some countries have lots of oil, some lots of money, and some lots of both. Some countries have little of either but lots of hungry people. This is a security problem.

Relationships among nations. Energy trade isn’t just business; it’s geopolitics, too. Quick: What leaps to mind, business or politics, at the mention of these words? Iran. Ukraine. Orinoco. Keystone. Enough said.

The morality of consumption. That the morality of consumption came up in a discussion about energy security that encompassed elements such as equity among nations, water, and the environment was interesting. But the topic didn’t receive much attention.

Everyone knew there were only two days.

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