Political Science and the Politics of Energy

Hughes, L., & Lipscy, P. Y. (2013). The Politics of Energy. Annual Review of Political Science, 16(1), 449–469.

The paper observes a remarkable correlation between the number of energy-related articles in leading political science journals and the oil price in the 1970s and the 1980s and even more remarkable lack of response in the quantity of publications to the rise of oil price in the 1990s and 2000s. Has political science lost interest in energy? Will it be able to respond to the two global energy challenges: the growing energy demand in Asia and the increasing concerns about the climate change? The paper explains why political science should be interested in energy, reviews early energy politics literature and discusses avenues for future research in the field.

Political science and energy

The paper formulates three questions for the political science of energy:

  1. What energy sources are prioritized? (JJ: in a more general form this question is of course about energy technologies, not only ‘energy sources’)
  2. How efficient is the use of energy? (JJ: this is also largely question about energy technologies (on the demand side)) and
  3. What tools do governments use to achieve their energy objectives? (JJ: although tools are important, it is not clear whether ‘objectives’ are simply the same as prioritised energy technologies as in (1) and (2) or are they separate and if so would another good question be ‘how are these objectives formulated’?)

According to the article, the political science of energy would need novel theoretical approaches because:

  1. Structures of markets for fuels differ markedly (some are largely domestic, and some more international) (POLET: in other words political economies of different energy technologies are different).
  2. Efforts of businesses and government to alter relative prices in favor of particular fuels generate feedback effects on forms of industrial organization (a historical institutionalist approach).
  3. Energy politics tend to be inherently complex because of multiple links of energy to other economic activities and environmental and social externalities.

Early research on political economy of energy

This ‘golden age’ of energy politics research was associated with the oil crises of the 1970s and focused on the politics of external dependence with particular attention to explaining differences in national responses to oil angst:

  • State-centered explanations generally fell into a realist tradition building on studies from the interwar period (1920s and 30s) which cast oil as primarily a national security issue. This approach had little predictive power and thus could not explain variations across fuel markets, time or across countries Ikenberry (1988) argues that the types of institutions, even when state interests are threatened, is mediated by the capacity of the state in energy policy making ;
  • Firm-centered and coalition explanations considered non-state interests groups (e.g. companies) as central in shaping energy markets and regulations, in negotiation with each other and with state institutions.
  • In addition, the 'golden age' literature addressed the role and power of international organisations such as OPEC and the IEA. A smaller stream addressed activities of international oil companies.

Avenues for future research

The paper structures future energy research along the “open economy politics” approach with respect to:

  • preferences of individuals and interest groups (e.g. industrial organisations) with respect to different energy technologies and organisations of energy markets; it is important that these preferences might be shaped by past technological and infrastructure choices thus resulting in ‘feedback loops’’ which can both explain and complicate research on changes in energy systems;
  • domestic institutions and theories related to public good governance ranging from electoral preferences to price structures;
  • international cooperation, especially related to climate, which the authors consider one of the few areas where contemporary energy-related political research is concentrated; the authors rightly point out that there was cross-national variation in energy policies before climate was on the minds or in the hearts of policy makers.


The Hughes and Lipscy article hopefully marks a turning point in research on the politics of energy. Their characterization of the “golden age” of energy politics, when most of the work focused on oil governance (both within and between states and other actors) and its connection to the oil price is fresh. For the most part, I agree with their characterization on recent energy politics as either focused on the resource curse or the interaction between nuclear energy and international security. And the article’s push for energy politics research to focus on cross-national differences between energy supply and demand is spot on.

Where they lose me, is in their “three-pronged” research agenda which comes from open-economy theory. While it may make sense to build on this theory in energy research, I’m not sure it’s a good division to structure future research in this area. For one, there’s a lot of overlap between their three areas. Domestic institutions (their second theme) are likely to be important in modulating preference aggregation (the first theme) as well as impact international cooperation (the third theme).

Secondly, this approach doesn’t really highlight what I see to be one of the most important questions which is: when do political factors play an important role versus other (geographic, economic, technologic and social) factors and how do those political factors interact with the socio-technical systems they govern. In fact except for trade policy and energy efficient vehicles, there’s very little reflection on how geographic and technical factors affect energy politics and vice-versa. (One illustration of their first question – what energy sources are prioritized?  – juxtaposes Austria’s 70% renewables (mostly consisting of hydro power) with the U.S.’ 10%. But the geography of the two countries is so different that I would argue it’s not merely a matter of “prioritization” but also geography and path-dependency)

A similar issue is explored in the post on the relative importance of geography vis-a-vis the "nuclear lobby" in limiting wind power expansion in Japan and on the importance of national ideologies vis-a-vis fossil resource endowments in nuclear power development in France.

Where they get it right is that the politics of energy systems are different and will likely need different methodological and theoretical approaches. But teasing out when this divergence is due to institutional and governance factors and when it’s merely a result of geographic and technical factors will be key in future energy politics research. Not only for getting the science right but also for being able to produce policy relevance knowledge which can help identify appropriate policy interventions for different contexts and “high-impact” opportunities.