Facts don't back notion of US energy independence

Business Times - 28 Mar 2008

Facts don't back notion of US energy independence


THE leading US presidential candidates have disagreed on many policy issues, ranging from the invasion of Iraq to the handling of the current housing market crisis. But there is one matter over which Democratic senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Republican senator John McCain - not to mention President George W Bush, the majority of members of Congress, and most pundits, both liberal and conservative - seem to have the same opinion: based on environmental, economic and national security considerations, Washington needs to embrace policies that could bring about 'energy independence'.

Mrs Clinton has stated that she wants to make America 'energy independent and free from foreign oil' while Mr Obama, her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, has declared that 'now is the serious time for serious leadership to get us started down the path of energy independence'. Similarly, in his recent State of the Union address, Mr Bush reiterated his commitment to 'energy independence', while Mr McCain said during the campaign that 'we need energy independence' for a 'whole variety of reasons'.

Current congressional legislation and debates in think tanks and the media are also dominated by the same calls for 'energy independence'. A Democratic think tank, the Center for American Progress, has launched a campaign called 'Kick the Oil Habit', while leading neo-conservative operators, including former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey, have helped establish a new think tank, the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, which promotes the idea that energy independence is both needed and doable in order to keep America safe from Middle Eastern terrorism. This reflects the view that Americans are funding terrorism with their petrodollars and only freedom from a dependency on 'Arab oil' would permit the US to go after terrorists and the Middle Eastern states who fund them.

But in a new book, Gusher of Lies (New York: Public Affairs, 2008), veteran energy analyst Robert Bryce challenges what has become a policy axiom of the American political establishment. He describes the evolving notions of 'energy independence' - that it is not only doable but desirable - as 'dangerous delusions'. This idea originally took hold back in the 1973 Arab oil embargo and has gained public support since the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US.

Mr Bryce demolishes the many 'false promises' that are promoted by those calling for energy independence. For example:

That energy independence will reduce or eliminate terrorism. (Terrorism is not dependent on oil: terrorist groups have operated for years without petrodollars.)

That big push for renewable and alternative fuel will mean energy independence. (In 2006, the US produced about five billion gallons of corn ethanol, and 250 million gallons of bio-diesel. But that was only 90 per cent of the energy demands of a single airline - American Airlines. And using the entire existing crops of soyabeans and corn to make ethanol and bio-diesel would still only displace about 7.5 per cent of America's oil imports.)

Or that energy independence will cause a collapse of global oil prices that will benefit the US. (The collapse of oil prices could result in the collapse of America's domestic oil production and increase its reliance on foreign oil.)

The reality is that the world, and the energy business in particular, is becoming more interdependent, and that interdependence is likely to only accelerate as new supplies of fossil fuel become more difficult to find and more expensive to produce. Notwithstanding all the concerns about oil shortages, global warming, wars in the Persian Gulf, and terrorism, 'the plain and unavoidable truth is that US, along with nearly every other country on the planet, is married to fossil fuel', a reality that is not going to change in the next 30 to 50 years, Mr Bryce says.

That means that American politicians and business executives will need to be actively engaged with the energy-producing economies of the world, especially in the Middle East. They will need to embrace the global market for energy while acknowledging the limits on the ability to develop new sources of energy that could displace fossil fuels and nuclear reactors.

Hence, instead of fantasising about 'energy independence, Americans will need to accept the reality of increasing energy use and adapt to a changing global climate while at the same time developing technologies that use solar, nuclear, and encourage efficient consumption, increase domestic supplies and rely more heavily on natural gas'. Given those facts, Mr Bryce concludes, 'the US needs to accept the reality of energy interdependence'.

However, the real question is: Will anything change the American mindset?

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved


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