Jan 23, 2007
Wall Street Journal, Print Edition
A cry is being heard across the nation, and loudly so in Washington. It is the call for "energy independence," and it will be at the center of the national energy debate over the next several months, providing the rationale for new policies and expansion of existing ones. Indeed, one might even anticipate a "declaration of energy independence" this July 4.
But what does "energy independence" mean for a $13 trillion economy that uses the equivalent of 50 million barrels of oil every day? Is it realistic and achievable? Or is it rhetorical overreach that will lead, as in the past, to disappointment and cynicism, the kind that drives the cycles of inconsistency in energy policy and leaves the U.S. no less vulnerable? The latter is more likely -- at least without a realistic appraisal of the U.S. position and the country's possibilities. But "energy independence" can provide a constructive framework for policy if it is properly thought through and the realities are recognized.
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With geopolitical turmoil, volatile prices and continuing reminders of the international political power of oil, the concept of energy independence is compelling and deeply appealing. In fact, it has been appealing for quite some time. The idea was introduced by Richard Nixon in November 1973, three weeks after the Arab oil embargo, when he introduced "Project Independence" and pledged that the U.S. would, within seven years, "meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy source." It was a bold assertion but one that puzzled his own advisers. "I cut the reference to 'independence' three times from the drafts, but it kept being put back," recalled Richard Fairbanks, a drafter of the speech. "Finally, I called over, and was told that it came from the Old Man himself." Nixon knew that energy independence was something that Americans would crave after the 1973 oil shock: He deliberately modeled his Project Independence on John F. Kennedy's Apollo goal of getting a man on the moon within a decade.
Back then, the goal may have seemed only somewhat unlikely. After all, when Nixon began his political career after World War II, the country already had a long history of energy independence -- and then some. For it had actually been the world's No. 1 oil exporter; indeed, out of seven billion barrels of oil used by the Allies in World War II, six billion were produced in the U.S. By the late 1940s, the U.S. had become a net importer of oil, although the real surge in imports did not begin until the 1970s.
It proved much easier to get a man on the moon than to make a nation energy independent. In the three and a half decades since Nixon, the U.S. has gone from importing a third of its oil to importing 60%, and that share is set to continue rising. The country is on a similar path for natural gas (which is about 25% of our total energy usage). North American supply has flattened out. Yet large amounts of new natural-gas-fired electric power generation have been added over the last decade, which means that demand will increase. Natural gas is also used in the making of ethanol, adding to the demand growth. This means growing imports of liquefied natural gas -- LNG -- rising from 3% of our current demand to more than 25% by 2020.
All of which suggests that thought needs to be given both to what energy independence means and what can be achieved. For, right now, the U.S. is moving at some speed in the opposite direction, toward greater integration into the global energy markets.
How dependent is the U.S.? If we look at total energy -- including coal, nuclear and a small but growing share from renewables -- the country is over 70% self-sufficient. Oil -- refined into liquid fuels for transportation -- is where most of the current dependence comes from. The risks do not owe to direct imports from the Middle East, contrary to the widespread belief. Some 81% of oil imports do not come from that region. Thus, only 19% of imports -- and 12% of total petroleum consumption -- originates in the Middle East
Our largest source of oil imports is Canada. It's also the source of most of our current natural gas imports, via pipelines. One can hardly say that either Canada or energy imports from Canada constitute a major threat to national security. The energy trade is part of a normal trading relationship with the country with which we're conjoined economically and which just happens to be our biggest trading partner. Our second largest source is Mexico, with which we are also in a dense relationship. Mexico depends upon oil for about a third of total government revenues.
The picture becomes more complex when one turns to our third largest source of oil imports, Venezuela. The once much-discussed "hemispheric energy solidarity" loses much of its resonance when balanced against the "21stcentury socialism" of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. After all, President Chávez is currently nationalizing the private sector, has on occasion threatened to embargo oil shipments to the U.S., and is putting much effort into fashioning an anti-U.S. alliance, the latest manifestation being the visit of Iranian President Ahmadinejad to Caracas. These are not the actions one normally associates with a good friend or a reliable trading partner.
Yet the source of imports is significant only up to a point. Energy security is a global issue. Although oil around the world varies greatly in terms of physical qualities and transportation costs, there is only one world oil market. So disruptions and loss of supply in one place radiate throughout the global market -- and global politics -- affecting consumers everywhere. Even if the U.S. did not import a drop of oil, it would still be vulnerable to turmoil involving oil outside its borders.
What are the prospects for "energy independence" in the way that Richard Nixon defined it 34 years ago -- that is, 1930s-style "autarky" and total self-sufficiency? Based on where we are today, very small, at least for a couple of decades. In terms of vehicles, as pointed out in our new study on "Gasoline and the American People," only about 8% of the auto fleet turns over every year. So the lead times are long for more efficient vehicles to enter the fleet. Ethanol, derived from corn, is on track to grow to about 10% of our total gasoline pool in a few years. This is certainly not inconsequential; it represents diversification and is equivalent to creating a new Indonesia-level oil-producing country in America's Midwest. But signs are already evident of an upper bound on corn-based ethanol, as the fuel-versus-food trade-off pushes up corn prices, setting off vocal protests from livestock growers and dairy farmers and, in due course, from those who buy breakfast cereals and soft drinks made with high fructose corn syrup.
What about technological advances that provide new answers? There is a "great bubbling" all along the innovation frontier of energy, ranging from conventional energy and efficiency to, especially, renewables, alternatives and "clean tech." Activity this wide-ranging has never been witnessed before. The impact could well be considerable, or even transformative. One would be very hard-pressed today, however, to say when and what form this impact will take.
In the end, if energy independence is presented as self-sufficiency, it will likely fall flat. And, as prices run through their cycles, disappointment will undermine the longer-term commitments that are required for a sound energy future. Today, quite simply, cutting ourselves off from global energy markets is not realistic.
But, if the goal of energy independence is understood differently, to mean energy security -- resilience, robustness, reduced vulnerability -- then it is much more useful.
This kind of definition recognizes that trade, in itself, is not bad. At the same time, it emphasizes the central goal of diversification -- encouraging investment and higher levels of research and development in both alternative and conventional energy sources. It means a new push for energy conservation, higher energy efficiency, lower energy intensity -- a theme that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will make the centerpiece of her agenda as chairman of the G-8 countries later this year. It certainly requires a consistent commitment to pushing the innovation frontier in ways that, eventually, lead to economically competitive alternatives and new technologies.
And it requires an understanding that this kind of energy independence -- as measured in energy security -- actually requires interdependence with other nations, both consumers and producers of energy. Indeed, how we manage our relations with other countries and other regions is a very essential ingredient for our own energy well-being.
Mr. Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, is writing a book on energy and geopolitics