The Energy Independence Debate is Simplistic, Distracting and, Ultimately, False
By Paul Roberts
Like clockwork, high oil prices have reignited a well-rehearsed debate over American “energy independence.” On the one side, self-styled energy patriots tell us that America must end its addiction to “foreign” oil—usually by raising domestic production. On the other, energy “realists” insist that U.S. demand can’t be satisfied at home, and that America has no choice but to rely more and more on an unfettered international oil market.
In fact, while both sides have some merit, the energy independence debate is simplistic, distracting and, ultimately, false. In the long term, U.S. energy security depends not on whether we get our oil at home or abroad, but whether we continue to use oil at all.
Look at the facts. First, America simply cannot produce enough oil domestically to meet current demand of 21 million barrels a day—much less our anticipated future demand. U.S. oil production peaked in the early 1970s, and has declined ever since—which is one reason imports have grown steadily. Yes, America has untapped oil reserves, but nothing like the massive oil fields we once had. Thus, even if oil companies were allowed to drill in off-limits places, like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, our production decline would only be delayed temporarily. In this, the energy realists are right.
On the other hand, the belief that America should trust international oil markets is absurd. Oil is the most politicized of all commodities, completely captive to the vagaries of geopolitics, especially in the unstable Middle East. True, new oil production in Africa, Russia, and South America has provided an alternative to the Middle East—but not forever. These countries simply can’t match the giant reserves of the Middle East, which means that, if American oil demand continues to rise, we will grow more dependent each year on the Middle East, a region whose future political stability is hardly assured. And at some point, even the bountiful Middle Eastern oil will deplete.
In other words, the key to U.S. energy security isn’t drilling more at home, or gaining greater access to foreign supplies, but reducing our use of oil altogether.
But how? An obvious first step is greater efficiency. Even modest improvements in, say, our miles-per-gallon performance would save more oil than we could ever hope to pump out of the Arctic. And because America is the biggest oil consumer, burning one of every four barrels produced worldwide, better efficiency here would have major impacts on world oil markets—and could go a long way to fighting terrorism, which is often funded by oil revenues.
Efficiency, however, gets you only so far. At some point, we need to replace oil altogether—and this won’t be easy. Many new energy technologies have potential, but none is ready for wide-scale deployment, especially in the transportation sector, where oil retains a near monopoly. Thus, if we are serious about pushing alternatives, like hydrogen, or making fuels from crops (or even about determining if these technologies are feasible), America needs to shift its R&D focus away from traditional energy, like oil, and into finding oil’s successor.
And that’s only a start. Even in a best-case scenario, where America manages to improve efficiency and develop new energy technologies, we can’t simply walk away from the oil problem. New technologies take time to deploy—a fleet of hydrogen-powered cars, for example, would need decades to roll out. In the meantime, our economy will need oil—less and less each year, but a substantial volume nonetheless. Maintaining that supply—and, by extension, a viable oil industry—while pursuing technologies that will make that industry obsolete, will be extraordinarily challenging.
In short, future U.S. energy security will be a complex juggling act, as challenging politically as it is technologically. It will require us to simultaneously become more efficient, develop new energy technologies, and maintain access to a declining but substantial volume of oil—goals that existing energy players, including oil companies and oil states, may not entirely share.
But as a nation, we have no choice. It’s already clear that an energy economy dominated by oil is no longer sustainable. We need to find something new, and we need to begin today. Getting rid of the simplistic debate about “energy independence” is a good place to start.