November 30, 2023 | Equilibrium

US International energy policy toward the 2024 elections

November 30, 2023 | Equilibrium

US International energy policy toward the 2024 elections

Key takeaways

  • There has been a significant shift in U.S. energy policy under the Biden administration, with a marked de-emphasis on energy security in national and global security strategies. This shift is exemplified by the lack of a cabinet-level official leading international energy policies and the downgrading of the role of energy security in U.S. national security.
  • The Biden administration has also withdrawn from projects related to fossil fuel projects abroad. The fossil fuel sector still dominates domestic and global energy consumption – US withdrawal has opened up opportunities for China to expand its influence and reap geopolitical benefits in the developing world by funding these projects.

While international energy policy is not on the ballot in the 2024 US elections, the election outcome will profoundly impact the U.S. role in international energy developments. Current U.S. energy policies have determined new rules of American engagement in the international arena. Despite these new rules having received little attention from the wider American foreign policy community, they have had a tremendous impact on U.S. activity abroad.

Across successive U.S. administrations led by Democrats and Republicans, energy policy was integrated into American national security policy. Over the years, a cabinet-level official in the White House – often the Vice-President – directed American international energy policy and used energy as a tool to promote US national security goals. In contrast, in the Biden White House, no cabinet-level official has led international energy policies.

Furthermore, the current administration downgraded the role of energy security in US national security and global security strategies. The exclusion of energy security from American national security policies is clearly reflected in the October 2022 National Security Strategy, which does not contain a section on energy security.

The U.S. National Security Strategy mentions “energy” 50 times but over half the times in combination with “clean energy,” “renewable energy,” or “energy transition.” All mentions of fossil fuels in the strategy are negative.  The strategy doesn’t once mention natural gas.

Likewise, the 2022 U.S. National Defense Strategy relates to energy mostly in the context of renewable energy, low-carbon energy, and reducing energy consumption.2 The 2022 National Defense Doctrine mentions clean energy and climate change, while it does not refer to the topic of operational energy -energy for military operations.

The White House has turned energy policy into a subset of climate policy. The administration’s answer to almost any energy security challenge has been that the transition to renewable energy would solve the problem. This attitude ignores the many geopolitical and energy security challenges associated with renewable energy and the reality that, by today’s technologies, renewable energy cannot provide sufficient energy to power America.

As part of its drive to transition from fossil fuels, the Biden administration in late 2021 issued guidance to all US government agencies to refrain from funding, promoting, discussing, advising, or even offering technical assistance related to the production or trade in fossil fuels. Accordingly, the U.S. Department of State sent a cable to all U.S. embassies abroad instructing them to refrain from discussing fossil fuels with counterparts abroad. Thus, the US removed itself from engagement with foreign countries on energy security policies and eliminated a useful American foreign policy tool.

In addition, in December 2021, the administration formally announced an end to American public finance for projects abroad that produce or transport fossil fuels. Under American leadership, the G7 adopted a similar pledge in May 2022. The U.S. also led the multinational development banks to limit funding to fossil fuel projects. Since the majority of energy in use currently and likely for many decades to come is fossil fuels, this means that the West removed itself from playing a major role in energy sector developments in the developing world, leaving the sphere open to China to fund the projects and reap geopolitical benefits from the engagement. 

These policy bans were also extended to natural gas. This is a sharp departure from the Obama administration, which treated natural gas differently than coal and oil and promoted natural gas projects as a means to replace coal consumption and thus quickly lower emissions and air pollution. President Obama’s White House championed new gas supply projects, such as the Southern Gas Corridor that delivers gas from the Caspian to Europe, in order to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian gas supplies and thus improve the energy security of U.S. allies.

The Biden administration’s return to the Paris Climate Agreement and policy drive against fossil fuels returned the U.S. to a leadership role on climate policy in the global arena. However, it created a vulnerability that China has been able to exploit to its advantage. The Biden administration has sought China’s cooperation on climate change since no global effort would succeed without China (and India) drastically reducing emissions. China perceives that making some unenforceable declarations on climate cooperation is likely to create opportunity for U.S. concessions on other geopolitical issues.

Regardless of where one stands on the future use of fossil fuels, it is clear to see the danger in eliminating policy engagement in the energy sources that are in use today. Currently, fossil fuels provide seventy percent of the energy consumed in the U.S. and 84 percent of global energy demand.

The US military relies on fossil fuels for its operations, and the United States is the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas. Chinese Premier Xi stated openly that, unlike the West, China will not get rid of the “old” energy (fossil fuels) before the “new” energy is in place.

Withdrawal of the U.S. from engagement in cooperation on fossil fuel projects with partners abroad does not mean that fewer fossil fuels will be produced or consumed. It means that China will have more opportunities to fund new fossil fuel production and transport projects and reap the geopolitical benefits of engagement with global players following the American retreat.

Prof. Brenda Shaffer is an international energy and foreign policy specialist, focusing on the interplay between natural gas trade and foreign policy, politics and energy in the South Caucasus, Iranian natural gas exports, ethnic politics in Iran, and Eastern Mediterranean energy. Prof. Shaffer is a research faculty member of the Energy Academic Group at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. She is also Senior Advisor for Energy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank and a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center in Washington, DC.