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The Entanglement of Power, Security, and Energy Supply – Part Two

I talked with Kluge Fellow Gaetano Di Tommaso about his research project, “Petro-Modernity and Statecraft: The U.S. Energy-National Security Nexus Reconsidered (1890s-1920s).” Before coming to the Kluge Center, Tano, as we call him here, was a Teaching Fellow at Sciences Po-Paris (Reims campus), in France. This is part two of the two-part interview. Click here for part one.

California’s great gusher. c1910. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Giselle: How would you define energy security as a concept?

Tano:  Energy security studies is an expanding academic field, intersecting and combining multiple disciplines, ranging from political science and international relations to political economy (and economics in general) to engineering.

The meaning of energy security as a concept has grown more and more complex in recent years and, due to its multifaceted nature, it is not easy to define today in its broadest sense. Indeed, depending on how you approach the issue of energy security, you end up with different sets of factors to take into considerations and problems to solve.

For example, if we consider what the defense needs of a country – any country – as a whole are, we may tend to value more specific aspects of energy supply, such as stability, abundance, and ease of access to said country’s energy sources.

If we focus on families or individual persons, especially those who live on low incomes or in industrially less advanced countries, priorities change. Being able to warm your houses, cook for your children, and fill your car’s gas tank becomes most important. This, from a policy standpoint, means making sure that energy supply is first of all affordable and readily available.

If we instead take the perspective of future generations, the single most fundamental driver of political action should be environmental sustainability, regardless of whether this requires high spending and a radical change of our transportation systems or other daily practices. In establishing what being energy secure really means, the temporal horizon that we set for our society is clearly crucial.

Race car driver Joan Newton Cuneo, seated in racing car. Between 1910 and 1917. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Striking a balance between these different interests is complicated. That’s why today it may be more useful to talk about energy security in the broader context of the so-called “energy trilemma,” where energy stability is just one of the components, together with affordability and sustainability, of the energy challenge that we face.

Of course, deciding where priorities lie is a political choice more than anything else. Let’s just look at the last decade or so to find a quick example.

Like many of their predecessors, both the previous and the current American president have identified energy security as one of the priorities in their agenda. Yet their strategies to achieve such a goal have been almost entirely different.

The Obama administration’s plan was to turn to renewable sources, while using natural gas a bridge to cleaner energy, and to work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through international cooperation. The Trump administration pushed instead for investments in the traditional fossil fuel industry to boost domestic energy production quickly and further reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil. At the same time, he withdrew from the Paris Agreement.

Despite in theory sharing the same end goal – energy security (or “energy independence”, to refer to an expression that U.S. presidents have used since at least the 1970s) – those policies represent two very different visions of what being energy secure looks like.

What is clear, in any case, is that energy policy has far-reaching ramifications in society, well beyond the energy sector. An extremely basic and succinct definition of energy security, one that is still used by the International Energy Agency despite being relatively old and narrow, describes it as “the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price”.

This definition conveys the most essential and practical aspects of the concept, those that have essentially determined the understanding of the concept for years. Still, today other aspects are taken into consideration when assessing whether a country is energy secure. One of the most appreciated features of an energy system is, for example, its so-called “resilience”, which in simplest terms points to the capacity to absorb shocks and recover promptly without serious disruption to the energy supply.

Historical analysis of these matters is exactly what can help us to have a sense of perspective on those ideas, processes, and policies, and therefore gain useful insight on such an all-encompassing subject.

Energy policy, foreign policy, arms policies. Editorial cartoon by Herbert Block. 1992. Herbert L. Block collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

G: What is something that we might not know about this topic that we should know?

T: I think we have to keep in mind a banal but often overlooked fact, which is that our current civilization is so reliant on high-energy consumption that we are inextricably bound to the current energy system.

This also means, of course, that none of our actions is neutral in terms of energy production, consumption, and supply. Understanding where our social habits come from – what economic circumstances, practical needs, cultural elements, and political priorities first produced them and then reinforced them – is what can really make a difference when trying to assess and revaluate them, or to change them.

The way in which we think about energy changes the way in which we frame policies, obviously, so it does affect outcomes. That’s why it is important to analyze how – historically – our society has defined the access and use to energy sources, and what made some of them more sought after than others.

More specifically, from my research perspective, it is extremely interesting (and perhaps a bit surprising) to see that, while everything changed during the last one hundred years or so, the competitive and zero-sum thinking that countries resorted to while approaching the issue of fossil fuels supply, despite better economic and technological judgment, remained the same through the decades.

G: What resources are you using at the Library?

T: The work of historical reconstruction is based on an array of primary and secondary sources, including official government records, from the Departments of State and the Interior, and from the Navy, as well as presidential papers, oil companies’ documents, and personal files of U.S. officials available in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. I am also looking at newspapers and magazines from the early 20th century, something that has helped me enormously in my attempt to reconstructing the public and political debate of the time surrounding energy.

As mentioned, the idea is to look at how people in Washington and around the country were thinking about security, energy, and progress in relation to fossil fuels; how those views turned into policies; and how they shaped a vision of America’s place in the world. This is also, not incidentally, how today’s ubiquitous rhetoric of energy securitization developed.

G: What brought you to the Kluge Center?

T: I knew researchers who had been scholars-in-residence here and they encouraged me to apply, including my Ph.D. supervisor. I am glad I did it; doing research on U.S. history here has been a great experience so far. The Library of Congress is truly unmatched in terms of availability and access to materials. I knew that once in Washington, DC, I would have access to a long series of relevant historical records – this was after all the whole point of the application, after all – but I was nonetheless surprised by the actual breadth and depth of the collections. The list of archival and bibliographical references is truly impressive – they are an invaluable support to research.

G: In closing, can you share an anecdote or a story about something that happened at the Kluge Center and what advice you would give to a future Kluge Center applicant?

T: Doing historical research is a solitary endeavor and I was not expecting things to be much different here. At the Kluge Center I found instead a very friendly community of scholars and researchers to interact with and share information and experiences. The people here may have very different specializations or backgrounds, but all the exchanges have been greatly rewarding, both at the personal and academic levels. It is an exciting environment.

I don’t think I have any particularly brilliant advice for those who are applying. But to those who will actually come to the Kluge Center as future fellows, I say to take advantage of every single day spent here to get a sense of what records and research tools are available to you and to dip into the incredible resources that this place holds. As you start digging into the various collections, you will discover things that you did not know you needed.

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