Energy Independence: Election-Year Refrain or Achievable Goal?

With the Presidential election behind us, there are several campaign relics likely destined for the dumpster–but it is yet to be seen whether energy independence will be one of them.  For Governor Mitt Romney, the term “energy independence” manifested into a type of free market system with results attainable by the end of the decade.  President Barack Obama’s plan also focused on the approach, with stress placed on developing alternative energy technology and reducing foreign oil imports.  But the bottom line remains whether, regardless of the method for achieving it, true energy independence can be reached at all.

Debate regarding the attainability of energy independence has stretched back further than the recent Presidential campaign.  President Nixon, for example, introduced a national plan for energy independence in his 1974 State of the Union address, an objective initially scheduled for completion by 1980. Presidents since then have incorporated energy independence into their election platforms, but the United States still remains beholden to foreign oil production for its energy consumption needs.  Foreign relations with Middle Eastern countries are regularly cited as being heavily influenced by concern over oil supply.  President Obama, too, is quick to tout his record on energy, citing that domestic oil production is at an eight-year high even while opponents note that new oil and natural gas leases on federal land have declined.

Often, the debate about energy independence circles around to energy security.  The United States imports heavily from foreign oil producers, and even if were able to meet our needs through increasing domestic production (and limiting domestic consumption), it’s unlikely that we would ever be truly independent from the global oil market.  Unless alternative energy production can be increased so rapidly and so effectively that we are able to offset our oil dependence while simultaneously reducing consumption, it’s a goal that we are unlikely to reach anytime soon.  Certainly the goal – making Americans less prone to the repercussions of political decisions abroad – is laudable, but it’s quite possible that the goal is just as unattainable now as it was in Nixon’s day. With increasing globalization for commodities in general, consumer gas prices at least would still be affected by the availability of a foreign oil supply.

Ultimately, the reason for our dependence might be as much the fault of the global market as it is our own.  Canada, our largest source for imported oil, has the opposite problem from the United States: rather than needing to produce enough domestic energy to satisfy its national consumption, Canada requires an optimal market in which to sell its overabundance of oil.  In the aftermath of the election, many analysts expect the Keystone XL pipeline project application to be approved, after having been stalled by the State Department earlier this year.  But even with an influx of crude oil into American refineries, it’s unclear that all of the oil would ultimately add to our domestic supply.  As a result of global oil demand, it’s just as likely that a higher bidder would be found overseas.  This is both good and bad: on the one hand, it would likely pay off for American refineries, but on the other, our domestic supply could remain largely unaffected in the long term.

Although it’s possible that reduced consumption and increased production of alternative energy sources could result in an American energy supply that is less exposed to international influence, it seems more and more likely that come four years, voters will be hearing the “energy independence” refrain yet again.

Written by Casey O’Brien, GIELR staff