Why Energy Independence In Its Current Form is Actually a Bad Idea

One of the main stories the New York Times ran on its front page on Friday was on how the United States is getting closer to a goal that “has tantalized presidents since Richard Nixon: independence from foreign energy sources.” Interestingly, when you finished reading the long article on page A21 (in the actual paper!), below it you see another story on Obama’s support for the southern leg of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which gives you a good idea why energy independence is getting closer.

Both articles show how energy independence became extremely connected and dependent on the rise of domestic gas and oil production. Therefore, I had to ask myself, is getting closer to energy independence actually such good news?

The headline might be a bit misleading. While the difference between domestic production and consumption in the U.S. has decreased significantly, energy independence is still far away. In 2011, this difference was 45 percent, down from a record high of 60 percent in 2005. This gap is expected to further decrease to 38 percent in 2020 and 36 percent in 2035 according to the EIA. Just to give you some perspective, only 30 years ago the gap was only 28 percent and about 60 years ago it didn’t exist at all. So how is the U.S. closing the gap?

One factor is the decrease in domestic consumption. According to the NYT article, since 2007, consumption of all liquid fuels in the U.S. has dropped by about 9 percent. Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service estimates in the article that gasoline use fell 6-12 percent. This trend is mainly attributed to the surge in gasoline prices which encouraged people to buy more fuel-efficient cars and factors like increasing online shopping and aging baby boomers that result in fewer miles driven. Improved CAFÉ standards also contributed to this trend by shifting car makers to manufacture more models of fuel-efficient cars.

The second factor is the increase in domestic production. National oil production, according to the article, which declined steadily to 4.95 million barrels a day in 2008 from 9.6 million in 1970, has risen over the last four years to nearly 5.7 million barrels a day. Projections are reaching 7-10 million barrels of oil a day in 2020. Gas also plays an important role – growing domestic gas production “has reduced reliance on natural gas imports and contributed to increased exports,” EIA observed. Last week the EIA reported that the U.S. natural gas average daily net imports in 2011 was at its lowest level since 1992, adding that “domestic natural gas production is growing, primarily from shale gas formations.”

While the contribution of the Bush administration to the rise of the oil and gas industry (detailed in the article), is pretty well-known, it’s important to take another look at President Obama’s contribution. The President has made American-made energy part of his vision for the future, as stated in his last State for the Union Address: “A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world.” This vision has been translated into an all-of-the-above energy strategy, which basically means developing “every available source of American energy.”

In accordance with his strategy, President Obama acknowledged last week that his administration “has approved dozens of new oil and gas pipelines over the last three years, including one from Canada, and as long as I’m president, we’re going to keep on encouraging oil development and infrastructure, and we’re going to do it in a way that protects the health and safety of the American people.” If this wasn’t clear enough, he added that “today, we’re making this new pipeline from Cushing to the Gulf a priority,” referring to the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline.

President Obama’s strategy is the latest attempt to frame energy independence as a positive force from security, economic and environmental points of view. Yet basically what these attempts suggest is to replace one bad strategy with another. If you really weigh the two alternatives against each other, I’m not sure that you will find that local shale gas and oil production are better for the U.S. than importing oil and gas from unfriendly countries. In a way, all you are doing is changing your drug dealer and that certainly won’t help cure the addiction.

Yet, it doesn’t mean that energy independence is a bad idea. It’s just mean that this interpretation, which Jason E. Box, a climatologist and professor, describes as “fundamentally flawed because it locks us in for decades” to continued reliance on polluting fuel sources,” is bad. It’s time to look for a better alternative – one that will truly look for innovative and sustainable domestic solutions.

If you think this is impossible, just think, for example, about the potential of biomass from crop residues. According to a recent study by Bloomberg New Energy using less than 20 percent of the available agricultural residues the US could produce more than 18 billion gallons of ethanol every year, replacing 16 percent of its gasoline consumption by 2030. This would create 1.4 million jobs and reduce CO2 emissions from gasoline-based transportation by 11 percent. The numbers, according to the report, would be even higher if biomass from forestry residues, household waste, and energy crops were included.

This solution might not be perfect, but it shows you that there are good solutions out there that are domestic, feasible and more sustainable than shale gas or oil. We need to start a discussion about these ideas and the first step should be admitting that energy independence in its current form is actually not such a good idea.

[Image credit: NWFblogs: Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at the School of Design Strategies at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, the sharing economy and sustainable business models such as B Corporations. He is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.