Is oil independence an illusion?
By Carl Etnier
The newly seceded United States took seven year to move from the 1776 Declaration of Independence to the Treaty of Paris, in which Great Britain ceded control of the land east of the Mississippi to the young country. In 1973, Richard Nixon set another seven-year challenge: the U.S. would achieve independence from foreign sources of energy by the end of the decade.
Thirty five years later, the U.S. energy dependence has dramatically increased. Crude oil imports, for example, have more than tripled.
In a new book, journalist and author Robert Bryce argues that the hope for energy independence is fraught with “dangerous delusions.” Bryce’s arguments in “Gusher of Lies” provide a refreshing counterpoint to many simplistic, political discussions about energy, but in the end, his blithe optimism about fossil fuel availability, U.S. financial resources, and global warming’s consequences leaves his arguments as dangerously deluded as those he criticizes.
Bryce pulls no punches in criticizing dreams of energy independence: “Energy independence is hogwash. From nearly any standpoint — economic, military, political, environmental — energy independence makes no sense. Worse yet, the inane obsession with the idea of energy independence is preventing the U.S. from having an honest and effective discussion about the energy challenges it now faces…
“Regardless of the ongoing fears about oil shortages, global warming, conflict in the Persian Gulf, and terrorism, the plain, unavoidable truth is that the U.S., along with nearly every other country on the planet, is married to fossil fuels. And that fact will not change in the foreseeable future, meaning the next 30 to 50 years.”
Bryce contends that commonly touted paths to energy independence just don’t cut the mustard. Efficiency, he says, won’t reduce U.S. energy consumption; we will just do more with the energy we have.
Corn ethanol, Bryce points out, has little or no net energy gain, is produced only with huge government subsidies, worsens global warming, and uses prodigious amounts of cropland and scarce water. Cellulosic ethanol, made from grass or wood, has never been produced commercially. Bryce calls it “vaporware,” a software industry term for a program that is promised but never actually put together.
Conventional natural gas production is dropping in both the U.S. and our chief foreign supplier, Canada, so gas imports will need to increase to meet demand. U.S. nuclear power plants rely on imported uranium for over 80% of their fuel, which means that nuclear power doesn’t increase energy independence, either (whatever you think about its risks and high cost).
Even coal, which many advocates of energy independence say the U.S. has in abundance, is too limited for projected growth in energy demand. The Department of Energy expects the U.S. to become a net coal importer as soon as 2015.
Solar and wind-generated electricity cannot be ramped up fast enough to create energy independence, Bryce says, and they don’t produce liquid fuels to displace oil use.
Increasing U.S. oil production by drilling more offshore or in an Alaskan wildlife refuge, according to Bryce, requires so much foreign expertise and equipment that they cannot be seen as true energy independence.
Bryce envisions a world in which the U.S. continues to consume large amounts of fossil fuel and lives comfortably with international interdependence. He sees a role for increased use of solar, wind, nuclear power, and efficiency, but none of them leads to independence.
While Bryce accurately describes limits to many energy sources, I see three major problems with his future vision. He doesn’t specify 1) where all the fossil fuel will come from or 2) how the U.S. is going to pay for continued large-scale imports. And 3), Bryce summarily dismisses any hope of adequately responding to global climate change.
On climate change, leading climate scientists like NASA’s James Hansen have concluded that the world has eight years to bend the curve of increasing greenhouse gases downward, before global feedback systems trigger out-of-control climate change that potentially makes the planet uninhabitable for humans. Bryce ignores this urgency; he simply throws up his hands and says that “curbing carbon dioxide emissions to any significant degree appears hopeless.”
Bryce has given up hope that humans will make a concerted effort to reduce carbon emissions, and so he basically says, “don’t bother.” Prominent experts in the climate debate counsel that throwing up our hands on curbing carbon emissions can, within eight years, trigger runaway global warming that could extinguish human life on the planet. Bryce ignores that point of view, rather than honestly pointing out that some really smart and knowledgeable people think his “don’t bother” recommendation spells curtains for us mortals.
Bryce admits we’ll face peak oil and the subsequent permanent decline of world oil production at some point, but he ventures no guesses on when that might occur. A growing number of experts think that we’re there: the current plateau in world oil production represents a flattish peak.
Even the optimists at the Paris-based International Energy Agency (of which the U.S. is a member), who foresee continued growth in oil production, are busily reducing their estimates of future supplies. Last summer they sounded the warning of tight oil availability relative to demand through at least 2012, and last Tuesday they released their annual “Medium-Term Oil Market Forecast,” which further reduced projections of future supply. What’s more, they noted that existing oil fields are depleting so fast that almost all the new production they anticipate outside of OPEC countries will be needed just to keep overall non-OPEC production constant.
By Bryce’s implicit criteria, it seems that peak oil has arrived. He approvingly quotes energy analyst Charlie Maxwell as saying that oil will go to $100 or $150 per barrel after peak. Though the manuscript was probably completed in 2007, the book was released in early March, two months after oil first closed at over $100 per barrel, and about the same time that it started being traded permanently in the triple digits. Four months later, we’re almost at $150 oil.
When peak oil approaches and is passed, Bryce says, shortages will manifest themselves through rationing of oil by price. That is, oil is available on the market, but there is a shortage of affordable oil for many people. Rather smugly, Bryce anticipates that price rationing will apply primarily to less wealthy countries.
Tell that to Vermonters who don’t know how they’ll afford to fill their oil tanks this winter.
Finally, there’s the question of continuing to pay for all the energy the U.S. imports. At today’s prices, the annual outflow of wealth for oil and refined petroleum products like gasoline alone is $700 billion dollars, almost as much as the entire 2007 trade deficit. What is the U.S. going to export to pay for that? How long will the rest of the world continue to lend money to the U.S. to import so much of an economic staple?
At the close of the Constitutional Convention, a woman famously asked Ben Franklin whether the founders had created a monarchy or republic. “A republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.” The problem of oil imports and other economic recklessness is vexing enough that sober, establishment voices are saying that even our ability to keep a republic is at risk.
David Walker, chief of the non-partisan Government Accountability Office until earlier this year, warns that economic imbalances in the U.S. risk leading the country to a fate similar to Rome’s: “The Roman Empire lasted a thousand years, but only about half that time as a republic. The Roman Republic fell for many reasons, but three reasons are worth remembering: declining moral values and political civility at home, an overconfident and overextended military in distant lands, and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government. Sound familiar?”
Retired CIA analyst Chalmers Johnson, whose job included preparing National Intelligence Estimates on many countries, has drafted his version of an NIE on the U.S., which similarly concludes, “Confronted by the limits of its own vast but nonetheless finite financial resources and lacking the political check on spending provided by a functioning democracy, the United States will within a very short time face financial or even political collapse at home and a significantly diminished ability to project force abroad.”
The U.S. was largely energy independent a hundred years ago, and it’s likely to be roughly independent again in 2108. By that time, given present trends, fossil fuels and nuclear power will be such a tiny portion of the world energy mix that what’s left will be local, renewable energy sources and little more.
Financial collapse or a catastrophic decline in fossil fuel available for import could lead to involuntary and unpleasant independence long before 2108. If no country will export oil, or no oil exporter will accept U.S. dollars in return for oil, we’ll have achieved a type of oil independence. Janice Joplin was at least partially right when she sang, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,” but I don’t think it’s what advocates of energy independence really have in mind.
I agree with Bryce’s notion of energy interdependence, although my version includes more planning and less laissez faire than his. Let’s declare common cause with all other industrialized countries (i.e., almost all of the world) and cooperatively research, develop, and support local, renewable sources of energy, especially efficiency. And let’s acknowledge that we’re all in this together, with everyone working to make sure no one goes without adequate food or heat this winter, and rich countries pledging that everyone will have enough to eat before we turn food into fuel.
Rather than focus on energy independence, let’s focus on living within our means, energetically and financially. The U.S. is the third largest oil producer in the world (after Saudi Arabia and Russia), with only 5% of the world population. As a medium-term goal, we could live off our own oil, reducing consumption by two thirds, and still have almost as much oil to burn per capita as Italy.
After U.S. independence from Britain came the century of the pioneers. In Vermont, we have all around us people who have pioneered reducing their energy use to one third or less of the national average. Let’s identify them, learn from them, celebrate their successes, and do likewise. As we plan for the upcoming winter and the years ahead, living within our means will help us both to keep warm and keep our republic.
Carl Etnier, director of Peak Oil Awareness, blogs at vtcommons.org/blog and hosts radio shows on WGDR, 91.1 FM Plainfield and WDEV 96.1 FM/550 AM, Waterbury. He can be reached at EnergyMattersVermont(at)yahoo.com.