In 1973, in response to the crisis spurred by OPEC’s oil embargo, then-president Richard Nixon launched Project Independence – a national campaign with the goal of achieving energy independence by 1980.
While the failed initiative left some enduring legacies in the US – lower highway speed limits, power plants fired by coal instead of oil – few beyond the White House truly believed that the largest economy on earth could ever break its dependency on overseas petroleum.
Just a year after Nixon’s call to arms, Time magazine called the idea of an energy-independent America “impossibly visionary,” adding that “the US will always need to import some oil.”
Today, however, such a future may be less far-fetched than it seemed in Tricky Dick’s day.
In a much-hyped report released earlier this month, the Paris-based International Energy Agency predicted that the US will briefly displace Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer by 2020, thanks to improved domestic extraction technologies.
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Partner this boom in production with expected gains in efficiency, the report continued, and the US could be energy self-sufficient in net terms by 2035.
New ways to burn domestic fossil fuels
“North America is at the forefront of a sweeping transformation in oil and gas production that will affect all regions of the world,” IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven said in a statement.
In 2011, according to the Washington Post, the US imported about 9.5 million barrels of oil per day – about half of its daily consumption, and the lowest import rate since 1995. The EIA thinks that US oil imports could fall to 3.4 billion barrels by 2035, driven by decreased demand and a boost in domestic supply.
Americans may be no less addicted to their cars 15 years from now, but the cars, at least, will be less dependent on oil. Fuel efficiency guidelines implemented in Obama’s first term require cars to get a minimum of 54.5 miles to the gallon by 2025, about two times the current standards.
At the same time, the same technologies that brought about a boom in shale gas – hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and horizontal drilling – could also provide a boom in shale oil. Oil companies have taken to heart the “drill, baby, drill” slogan Republicans pioneered in the 2008 presidential campaign, extending their explorations to previously untapped reaches of the country.
In June, the US government predicted that the output of “tight oil” – oil derived from hard-to-access sources like shale or chalk – would double to roughly 1.35 million barrels per day by 2035.
Energy efficiency is a political good more than an environmental one. Lower oil consumption through things like fuel efficiency is a net positive move toward sustainability. Finding new ways to acquire and burn domestic sources of fossil fuels is not necessarily so.
Sapping motivation from renewable investment
The US’s self-reliance on oil does not represent a net gain for the planet either. In 2035, the year of US potential energy independence, global demand for energy will have grown by one-third from current demand, according to the IEA, China, India and the Middle East accounting for 60% of the growth. China and its Asia counterparts will make up 90% of OPEC’s business by then.
If fracking’s threats to water quality and carbon leakage can be properly addressed, said former vice president Al Gore in a recent interview with the environmental magazine Grist, then shale gas could be a serviceable bridge between coal and renewable energy sources.
But, he added, the economics propelling the boom in gas could sap motivation for the large-scale investment in cleaner renewables that the US so desperately needs to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. “I do worry that we could make such a legacy investment in gas infrastructure that the nation’s appetite for making a second conversion would be severely diminished,” Gore warned.
There is no shortage of critics pointing out the economic and environmental pitfalls of the current argument for an energy-independent US.
What is clear is that a remake of the North American and global energy supply system is in order, for economic, environmental and political reasons. It remains to be seen whether government and industry leaders will recognise that the long-term costs of a warming planet present a more urgent need than short-term economic growth.
“Clean energy will be one of the defining industries of the 21st century,” said Todd Stern, US special envoy for climate change, in a speech this summer. “But we also need to make clear that the severe risks of climate change make this transformation essential if we care about sustaining our health, our prosperity and our national security. Climate change is what makes the transformation of our energy system an engagement of necessity, not one of choice.”