Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Energy Policy Shows Fallacy of a 'Domestic' Debate

| October 1, 2012

The presidential debate on Wednesday night is an opportunity for the candidates to discuss, exclusively, "domestic policy." But that very division of "domestic" and "foreign" policy has always been forced. For all the talk about the meaning of these forums, the reason why debates can be so phony is because we've bought into the false notion that certain issues turn on and others turn off at our borders.

It isn't possible to discuss the budget without debating, for instance, the Pentagon's bloat. That, in turn, requires a conversation about both our military adventures abroad and jobs at shipyards and factories at home. Education affects our children, but also our nation's strength. And immigration policy, such as the Draconian laws in states like Arizona, reflects the security of our borders, but also our economic competitiveness and capacity to lure global leaders here.

But nowhere is the divide between domestic and foreign so artificial than in the area of energy policy. It is in this arena that the debates over domestic fracking, environmental harms, dependency on foreign oil, geopolitical threats, global warming, melting glaciers, and a host of other head-scratching policy problems come together — proving that the distinction, in Wednesday's debate, between domestic and foreign policy is about as definitive as sand on the shoreline.

The here-vs.-there division risks obfuscating potential solutions to our problems — and the real policy differences between the candidates. Domestic energy production and foreign policy are inextricably linked. Consider just one example:

In the Arctic, Shell Oil has just announced that it missed its window to begin a first-of-its-kind drilling operation off the coast of Alaska. After many delays, Shell recognized that the ice was coming back for the winter, and has packed up all but a few pieces of equipment until 2013.

Spring will come again, and with it lots of water; rising global temperatures have vastly improved maritime access to the Arctic Ocean and all its spoils, which once seemed unreachable. This year, Arctic sea ice set a new low. So Shell Oil, which receives substantial federal subsidies through tax credits, will soon be back. So will other international oil companies, who argue that the untouched oil resources in the Arctic could amount to 10 percent of current domestic production. We are not alone in this effort: Russia and Canada, for example, want their share of the ungoverned Arctic as well — which makes plans to drill just off of our northernmost state a potential foreign relations problem. (Can we see Russia from our oil rigs?)

In recent election cycles, we and our politicians have come to talk about energy policy primarily in terms of the policies we set down to encourage domestic production. Whether we continue subsidies for wind power, provide tax credits for big industry, or promote novel techniques like fracking through government investments in research and development, we think of the choices we make as affecting the environment and the relationship between government and the private sector. The same issues arise even when new technologies appear on the horizon — such as an emerging process for capturing carbon dioxide from smokestacks and then forcing it into the ground to shake loose oil reserves underneath the surface. And it may be that, in the upcoming debate, these issues will be discussed in precisely those terms.

But when that happens, we forget that these policies also potentially affect our relations with, say, our Arctic neighbors — and affect how much we rely on the Middle East.

It's worth noting that the "domestic" policies that have yielded so much American-made energy have resulted in a 16-year low in our dependence on "foreign" oil.

Did I say "foreign"? My apologies — that debate isn't until Oct. 22.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“Energy Policy Shows Fallacy of a 'Domestic' Debate.” The Boston Globe, October 1, 2012.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem