Former Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham said that during the last 12 years, energy has become an increasingly important component of American and international society and politics in a lecture held March 23 at Lauinger Library.
Abraham’s tenure as Secretary of Energy lasted from 2001 to 2005 under President George W. Bush’s administration.
The Department of Energy has, in its history, been perceived as unnecessary; Abraham himself at one point even endorsed a bill to abolish the department. However, upon becoming Secretary of Energy, Abraham said his opinion changed and today, he sees energy as one of the most important issues in America.
“Out of all the departments, other than the glamorous departments like the State Department, I don’t think there is a more challenging or interesting job in this government,” Abraham said.
According to Abraham, upon entering office he saw the United States increasingly dependent on foreign nations as a result of the gradual depletion of natural gas reserves and a lack of exports. Abraham said this caused the United States to rely on oil imports from countries that were often politically unstable.
“In 2005 America was dependent in an ever-increasing amount on imported oil, over 60 percent and growing,” Abraham said. “With each increase in that dependency came more economic and energy superiority, as were we dependent on countries, many in turmoil.”
Abraham also said the issue was exacerbated by the government’s desire to reduce the percentage of power generated through nuclear energy to a level below 20 percent out of safety concerns.
Although alternative forms of renewable energy were starting to emerge, they were not expected to contribute significantly to power generation in the short run.
Over the years, technological and technical innovations like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have given the United States’ sufficient gas and petroleum resources to be self-sufficient, according to Abraham.
“Our dependency is now going in the other direction. In fact, oil prices, for example, are now too low and not too high,” Abraham said.
Abraham cited the lifting of the crude oil ban in Dec. 2015, which allowed American companies to export oil to the rest of the world. Abraham said such a development would have been unfathomable during his time as Secretary of Energy.
“When I left office, if someone had even said we would be considering lifting the ban on exporting crude oil from the United States, I would have thought they were crazy,” Abraham said.
Abraham observed that this could result in the increased use of energy as a political tool.
“The new ability the U.S. has of exporting energy to countries which may be under political turmoil can drastically change the political and security scene of the planet,” Abraham said.
Abraham noted, however, that the low energy prices caused by increased U.S. oil production may result in other sources of power generation becoming less attractive.
Abraham said that, the price of natural gas, in particular, remains low, alternative forms of energy, including nuclear and renewable sources, would become too expensive to encourage further production and development.
Regardless of this, Abraham highlighted the advances made in addressing climate change, which he said has become a bigger issue across the years.
“On all fronts, the discussion on climate is a much bigger discussion point in comparison to 12 years ago,” Abraham said.
According to Abraham, decreased levels of carbon emissions result from the transition from coal to natural gas as the primary resource for the generation of energy.
“Our emissions are coming down in comparison to the projections, because natural gas is being substituted for coal in an alarming amount,” Abraham said. “Natural gas burns about 50 percent less carbon than coal.”
Speaking about the future of the Department of Energy under President Donald Trump, Abraham said its path is unclear, because the administration is now mainly focused on social and economic issues.
“We’ll have to wait to see some clarity, because I think that the focus now is mostly on the health-care debate and taxes,” Abraham said.
With regards to the United States’ relations with energy-producing countries, Abraham said the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries will continue to respect the status quo of oil prices.
“OPEC policy will remain unchanged from what it has been from the last couple of years,” Abraham said. “They will take minimal action and will not try and adjust price fluctuations.”
In addition, Abraham said Iran could become an important player in the future, as the lifting of U.S.-imposed sanctions would allow its energy sector to develop.
“If the U.S. does not reestablish the ban against Iran, the Iranian energy sector will grow exponentially. Without sanctions, they will be a growing force in the energy sector,” Abraham said.
According to Abraham, energy is and will remain at the core of international development and security in the Middle East and North Africa in the context of the fight against the Islamic State group and other terrorists.
“The central issue in the battle between ISIS and the governments in the Middle East and North Africa is the control of energy. It has become an important strategy for terrorists,” Abraham said. “Energy is at the center of almost all geopolitical issues of the moment.”