United States energy independence

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Trend of net energy imports into the United States, 1985-2014 (US Energy Information Administration)

U.S. energy independence relates to the goal of reducing the U.S. imports of oil and other foreign sources of energy. If total energy is looked at, the U.S. is over 70% self-sufficient.[1] Energy independence is espoused by those who want to leave America unaffected by global energy supply disruptions, and to restrict a reliance upon politically unstable states for its energy purposes. Energy independence is highly concerned with oil, being the source of the country's principal transport fuels. The United States is the world's third largest producer of oil,[2] but it also relies on imported oil. More oil is imported from Canada than any other country.[3] 19% of imported oil comes from the Middle East.[1] Such resources are finite and decreasing, despite an increase in demand. World-wide demand for oil is projected to grow 60% over the next two decades.[4]

As of 2005, the U.S. produced about 40% of the oil that it consumes; its oil production peaked in 1970[5] and its imports had exceeded domestic production since the early 1990s. Greater energy self-sufficiency, it is claimed, would prevent major supply disruptions like the 1973 oil crisis and the 1979 energy crisis from recurring. Proponents argue that the potential for political unrest in major oil suppliers, such as Saudi Arabia (15% of domestic consumption), Venezuela (13%), and Nigeria (10%), is abundant, and often cause great fluctuations in crude oil prices (especially in the short-term), despite the risk-potential being factored into market prices.

Large individual pipelines and other fuel infrastructure and extraction projects are controversial issues in American politics.

Historical trend[edit]

Trend of US net imports (imports minus exports) of natural gas, 1974-2013 (data from US EIA)

In the early 20th century the United States became a major oil supplier to the world. World War II prompted a Synthetic Liquid Fuels Program but it did not go beyond research. In mid-century the country shifted from being a major exporter to a net importer. An import quota imposed in 1959 limited imports to a fraction of domestic production until 1973.[6]

America's dependence on foreign oil rose from 26 percent to 47 percent between 1985 to 1989.[7] After the 1973 oil crisis, the United States Department of Energy and Synthetic Fuels Corporation were created to address the problem of fuel import dependency. According to the Washington & Jefferson College Energy Index, by 2012, American energy independence had decreased by 22% since the tenure of President Harry Truman.[8]

America's imports of foreign oil fell to 36 percent in 2013, down from a high of 60 percent in 2006.[9]

Many proponents of energy independence look to the United States' untapped domestic oil reserves, either known or potential. Those who favor increasing domestic oil production often suggest removing many of the limitations on oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (see Arctic Refuge drilling controversy) and the Outer Continental Shelf.


Some proponents of U.S. energy independence promote wider use of alternatives such as ethanol fuel, methanol, biodiesel, plug-in hybrids and other alternative propulsion. A 2013 report published by the Fuel Freedom Foundation said that without a shift to domestic feedstocks for fuel, such as natural gas and biomass, the U.S. would not be able to achieve energy independence.[10] As of 2014, the United States imposes an import tariff of 54 cents a gallon on ethanol fuel (there is no such import tariff on oil). Ethanol fuel in Brazil is produced from sugarcane, which yields much more fuel per acre than the corn used for ethanol production in the United States.

In the United States, oil is primarily consumed as fuel for cars, buses, trucks and airplanes (in the form of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel). Two-thirds of U.S. oil consumption is due to the transportation sector. A national strategy designed to shift all transportation to a combined use of alternative fuels and plug-in hybrids is predicted[by whom?] to make the U.S. independent of petroleum (oil).

If alternative fuels are desired at any cost, then the U.S. could also make synthetic fuel from its coal reserves. Methanol, synthetic diesel and gasoline made from U.S. coal can replace petroleum-derived fuels for a hundred years, which is long enough to develop sustainable domestic renewable fuels such as cellulosic ethanol or methanol.

Since Americans may primarily object to oil imports from certain regions (such as the Middle East) rather than in general, sometimes an alternative North American energy independence is proposed,[by whom?] by which North America as a unit should be energy independent, but in which the U.S. could still import energy from Canada and Mexico.


Highlighting the difficulty of separating domestic and foreign oil sources, journalist Robert Bryce stated in 2008 that "the trends of energy interdependence are growing and are inexorable" and branded the idea of being able to choose where your oil came from as "hogwash".

The structure of the argument of critics is arranged as follows:

  1. Energy independence will not decrease U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
    1. Interests in the Persian Gulf, including the protection of worldwide energy security upon which the global economy is dependent, will remain a U.S. priority.[11]
    2. Terrorism will not decline in the Middle East if the US ceases to buy oil, because terrorism is not funded by oil money.[11]
    3. Although vast oil supplies are found in an unstable region subject to difficult geopolitics,[12] these geopolitics will continue to be fueled by other large consumers of oil, such as China, whether or not the U.S. achieves energy independence. U.S. energy independence will not cause a U.S. pull-out from the Middle East, it will not decrease terrorism, and it will not foster stability or reform in the region.
  2. Renewable energy sources can be extremely inefficient, as in the case of corn-based biofuels, which requires massive government subsidies and also enormous amounts of water and chemicals to grow, and causes significant air pollution when burned.[11] Other renewables, namely wind and solar power, are expensive and intermittent, and lack the infrastructure and technology needed to properly store the energy they harness from the environment:
    1. Natural gas was not a viable portion of US energy as of 2008, since we may have peaked in domestic reserves: U.S. imports of natural gas from Canada tripled since 1973.[11]
      1. However, US gross natural gas production set new all-time record highs each year from 2007 through 2013, due in part to new methods to extract Shale gas. Despite record withdrawals, the volume of US proved reserves still in the ground also stands at an all-time high, according to reserve data for the end of 2011. US net imports of natural gas peaked in 2007, then declined rapidly, and in 2013 were 60 percent below 2007.[13]
    2. In the absence of breeder reactors or fusion reactors, nuclear power plants aren’t a solution to energy independence either, since uranium must be imported: currently, 80% of U.S. uranium is imported, mainly from Russia and Canada.[14]
    3. Although the U.S. enjoys massive coal reserves able to power our country at current rates of energy consumption for 200 years,[11] the hope that the country could use this resource as a liquid to fuel our transportation sector is unlikely. Although currently the U.S. remains a net coal exporter of lower-quality coal, a large and, as of 2008, increasing portion of coal is being imported due to the cheaper, high-quality, low-sulfur foreign coal needed by power plants coping with air-quality regulations.[11]
      1. However, from 2007 to 2011, US coal imports fell by 64%, and coal exports rose by 81%. As of 2011, coal exports from the US were eight times the tonnage of imports, and the US was the world's fourth-largest exporter of coal.[15]
    4. U.S. oil reserves cannot be relied upon: American oil production in 2008 had been steadily declining since 1970.[11]
      1. From that point, US oil production rose rapidly during 2009-2013; US crude oil production for 2013 was 49% higher than that of 2008.[16]
    5. Energy-efficient electrical and electronic devices require rare earth elements which mostly come from Inner Mongolia,[17] and lithium, which mostly comes from the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.[18]

Benefits of oil dependence[edit]

Roger Howard[19] has argued[20] in the Wall Street Journal that oil dependence has significant benefits for the US and other oil-importing nations. First, the world's major oil exporters are highly dependent on their oil revenues, and fear rapid drops in the price of oil, such as occurred in late 2008 and in 2014/2015. Second, this fear restrains destructive actions by exporters: Howard cites the example of Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia. Russia's stock market plunged, and "within a week capital outflow reached a massive $16 billion, suddenly squeezing domestic credit while the ruble collapsed in value." He also gives the example of Libya, where Muammar al-Gaddafi gave up his Pakistani nuclear weapons in exchange for the US lifting its economic sanctions, which had prevented Libya from increasing its oil production.

Energy Resilience and AERS[edit]

Andy Grove argues that energy independence is a flawed and infeasible objective, particularly in a network of integrated global exchange. He suggests instead that the objective should be energy resilience: resilience goes hand in hand with adaptability, and it also is reflected in important market ideas like substitutability. Resilience is one of the best features of market processes; the information transmission function of prices means that individual buyers and sellers can adapt to changes in supply and demand conditions in a decentralized way. His suggestion for how to increase the resilience of the U.S. energy economy is to shift use from petroleum to electricity (electrification), that can be produced using multiple sources of energy, including renewables.[21]

In 2008 former vice president Al Gore challenged the United States to commit to producing all electricity from renewable sources (AERS) like solar and wind power in 10 years.[22][23] Both the Center for Resource Solutions and current president Barack Obama have publicly stated they support Al Gore's AERS goal.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Daniel Yergin. "Energy Independence". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2008-09-27. 
  2. ^ "Rank Order—Oil (Production)". The World Factbook. CIA. Retrieved 2007-09-14. 
  3. ^ "Crude Oil and Total Petroleum Imports Top 15 Countries". Energy Information Administration. Retrieved 2008-09-27. 
  4. ^ "Submitted Testimony of Frank J. Gaffney, Jr." (PDF). United States House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Retrieved 2008-09-27. 
  5. ^ David L. Goodstein (2005). Out of gas: the end of the age of oil. W.W. Norton & Co. p. 17. 
  6. ^ foundation of OPEC
  7. ^ Abelson, Philip H. (26 October 1990). "Transportation Fuels". Science 250 (4980): 485–426. doi:10.1126/science.250.4980.485. PMID 17751464. 
  8. ^ Luna, Taryn (April 30, 2012). "W&J College index details U.S. energy consumption". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved December 16, 2012. 
  9. ^ Thomas L. Friedman (August 24, 2013). "Foreign Policy by Whisper and Nudge". The New York Times. 
  10. ^ Aronoff and Taft (2014). "Is Energy Independence Really Possible In The United States?"
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Bryce, Robert. Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence". New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2008.
  12. ^ Balestrini, Santiago. “The Nuclear Option for Long-Term Energy Independence: Report for the 2006/2007 Sam Nunn Security Program Energy Policy Exercise”. Pp. 1-26. http://www.janosburg.net/publications/2007_SNSP_Energy_Exercise_Report_NuclearOption.pdf 12/16/2008.
  13. ^ US Energy Information Administration, Natural gas data, accessed 21 March 2014.
  14. ^ Yamanaka, Megumi. “US demand for uranium seen rising sharply”, International Herald Tribune. April 16, 2007. http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/04/15/bloomberg/bxcom.php. 12/16/2008
  15. ^ US Energy Information Administration Coal overview, 27 Sept. 2012.
  16. ^ US Energy Information Administration, Crude oil production, accessed 21 March 2014.
  17. ^ Farago, Robert (23 July 2009). "The Truth About Rare Earths and Hybrids". International Business Times. 
  18. ^ Mills, Mark (5 May 2008). "Go Long On Lithium". Forbes. 
  19. ^ author of The Oil Hunters: Exploration and Espionage in the Middle East, 2008, Hambledon Continuum, London / New York, ISBN 978-1-84725-232-6
  20. ^ An Ode to Oil, Wall Street Journal, 11/29/08
  21. ^ Lynne Kiesling. "Andy Grove: Energy resilience, not energy independence". www.knowledgeproblem.com. Retrieved 2008-09-27. [dead link]
  22. ^ Jasmin Melvin; Deborah Zabarenko. "Planet Ark : Gore: Make All US Electricity From Renewable Sources". Reuters. Retrieved 2008-09-27. 
  23. ^ Ucilia Wang. "Al Gore Sets Energy Goal". greentechmedia.com. Retrieved 2008-09-27. 
  24. ^ "Center for Resource Solutions Supports Al Gore's 100% Renewable Energy Goal". www.resource-solutions.org. Retrieved 2008-09-27. [dead link]

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