The phrase “energy independence” has made its way back to America’s airwaves this election season. You’ve heard it on the campaign trail. You’ve heard it in the debates. But what does it mean and is it even a worthy goal?
American voters have heard promises of energy independence since the Arab oil embargo of 1973. That’s the first time gasoline prices jumped, and drivers lined up at the pump. Richard Nixon was the first president to promise energy independence, but he hasn’t been the last.
Nixon said the country would be independent of all foreign sources of oil by 1980. Then President Gerald Ford pushed it back to 1985. Energy independence has been touted by Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now, candidate Mitt Romney is promising North American independence by 2020. Of course, there’s a caveat — we’d have to join forces with Canada and Mexico, assuming the two countries would prioritize the United States over China or any other energy hungry nation.
So, why is it taking so long?
Chris Nelder is an energy analyst and author.
“Part of the reason why we’ve failed to reach energy independence for the last many many decades is because economic growth goes hand in hand with energy consumption,” says Nelder. “And our economy runs on fossil fuels. We need oil for transportation we need natural gas for things like fertilizer, and petrochemicals. And we need coal for things like steel.”
And we use a lot more energy than we produce at home. When it comes to oil and natural gas, only a little more than half of what Americans use every day comes out of the ground in America. We get the rest from overseas. So energy independence is not so easy.
Renewables like wind and solar account for about 2 percent of our electricity output. And so far, renewables aren’t driving our cars.
“It will take decades for renewables to replace fossil fuels and you can’t use renewables to make plastics or steel,” says Nelder.
Nelder, like many, say the U.S. does need to start developing more alternative sources of energy.
Shale Gas to the Rescue?
A lot of new attention for achieving energy independence has focused on unconventional sources like shale gas and “tight” oil. Unconventional refers to home-grown sources developed with the help of new technologies. The Marcellus Shale is one of those unconventional sources.
Oilman T. Boone Pickens is a big proponent of using these sources to help get the country toward energy independence. At an event in the Philadelphia area last year, Pickens referred to Obama’s plan for energy independence.
“Somebody is gonna ask him, ‘How you coming on the deal of getting off of the Mid-East oil pal?’” said Pickens. “But he’s not the only one. Republicans [are] the same way. Well, that’s gotta stop. We gotta plan to stop it. We do have the natural gas.”
Oilmen like Pickens are optimistic that technology will continue to help tap new domestic sources of fossil fuels.
All of these sources — coal, oil, natural gas — come with some amount of environmental and public health risk. And rarely are those costs factored into the energy independence equation.
Both President Obama and Governor Romney agree the U.S. has 100 years worth of natural gas, which could lead us down a path toward energy independence. But not everyone who has run the numbers agrees, and the 100-year supply estimate is at the high end.
Energy analyst Chris Nelder says the proven reserves of natural gas would last us just 11 years.
“And even if we did take that path,” says Nelder, “and try to drill all of these tight oil formations, and all of these shale formations, and use up the natural gas liquids from plays like the Marcellus, what it would do is it would drill out the last dregs of our reasonably economically viable resources domestically very quickly. Like within 10 years.”
In other words, the oil and gas we have left beneath our land is not the same quality and quantity of what we had when the first oil well gushed forth in Titusville, Pennsylvania back in 1859.
And no President is about to tell producers they can’t sell their oil or gas to the highest bidder, who may be overseas.
Since energy independence is so dubious, the conversation among energy analysts, and large industrial consumers these days is not so much energy independence, but energy security.
What’s energy security? Basically it means not putting all your eggs in one basket. If independence is virtually impossible, then spread out your risk. Minimize the possibilities of having to fight overseas wars to secure your energy supply. Develop renewables and make friends with lots of different fuel producing countries.
It’s important to note that one thing energy independence, or energy security, won’t do is make oil cheaper. Oil is a global commodity. And with countries like China and India demanding more of it every day, prices are not about to go back to 1973 levels.
But even all this talk about energy independence and energy security may be premature.
Unlike countries such as Germany, Japan, and Australia, the United States doesn’t have an energy plan with detailed priorities. Before that happens, it’s hard to forge a path toward energy independence or security.
The Elusive U.S. Energy Plan
George Biltz is vice president for energy and climate change at Dow Chemical. Dow relies on natural gas and oil as raw ingredients to make petrochemicals and plastics. And the company’s production demands a lot of energy use. Biltz’s job is to think about energy supplies, and plan ahead. And he has high praise for oil and gas producers.
“For all the hits that industry takes there are some very bright people trying to do some good work,” says Biltz. “And from an economic standpoint they are heroes to this economy. They brought us an energy future we didn’t have four or five years ago.”
But Biltz says more than anything, the country needs an energy plan, with detailed priorities. And that’s where the conversation needs to be.
“The U.S. should step back and say with all this energy, with all this changing the game the way it has, let’s revisit how we want energy to work for this country,” says Biltz. “How we think the best ways to use the energy we have and where we want to get to. And then create a new energy narrative, a story that talks about how this energy will be used to advance the country not just this quarter, or next year but the next several decades.”
Biltz says the U.S. is way behind other countries when it comes to setting priorities.
“Energy is the one thing that affects the economy and how it grows,” says Biltz. “It affects the lifestyles of all the people, whether you want iPods or whether you’re worried about getting a washing machine. Energy drives lifestyles, which drives general satisfaction about life. So, you have it developing on those two issues, on the side of the environment. And these pieces all put together talk about the future of a nation.”
But if you look at the energy policies of either President Obama or Governor Romney, you won’t find a plan that lays out priorities for the country’s energy future. You won’t find answers to questions like whether we should keep domestic fuel at home, or sell it abroad. Or how much of our domestic energy resources should go toward manufacturing, or transportation. Instead, you have benchmarks for future years. And we know how easy those deadlines are to miss.