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Promises, Promises: Chasing an elusive pledge

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H. JOSEF HEBERT
October 31, 2008
— It will be 35 years next week since President Richard Nixon, responding to an Arab oil embargo, vowed to make the United States energy independent and do it in seven years.

America is still waiting.


Now as Barack Obama and John McCain vie to become the next president, a promise of U.S. energy independence again has become a rallying cry on the campaign trail.


Is it possible, or even desirable? Many energy experts say it's not. People disagree on what energy independence means zero energy imports, or something less? And even if the United States were energy independent, would it be insulated from global oil price shocks, with oil priced in a global marketplace? Again, energy experts say don't count on it.


"As president I will turn all the apparatus of government in the direction of energy independence," McCain declared, labeling his energy agenda "the Lexington Project," after the New England town where America declared its political independence. He concedes it "has confounded" past Congresses and seven presidents.


Obama also embraces the idea. He promises as president to "make sure that we finally get serious about energy independence."


Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been equally enamored of the catch-phrase. It's the justification GOP lawmakers cited repeatedly for more oil drilling off the nation's coasts and in an Alaska wildlife refuge.


Democrats called the energy legislation they pushed through Congress last year the "Energy Independence and Security Act," although its key provisions a 40 percent increase in auto fuel efficiency and greater use of ethanol in cars fall far short of achieving such a goal.


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi even created a new House committee to highlight the issue: the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.


But to many experts the promise of energy independence, echoed over decades, is "pie-in-the-sky" political rhetoric. If it means self sufficiency, various critics have called it "a misguided quest" a "red herring" a "mirage" and a "myth" that might even cause more harm than good by shifting attention away from reducing U.S. vulnerabilities while still relying on imports.


Thirty-five years ago, on Nov. 7, 1973, the nation had lines of motorists waiting at gas stations and people worried about running out of fuel oil in the coming winter. "We are running out of energy," President Nixon warned, addressing the nation four weeks after Arab oil producers had cut off supplies in response to U.S. support of Israel in the Mideast war.


As he unveiled "Project Independence," Nixon declared: "Let us set as our national goal ... that by the end of this decade we will have developed the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy sources."


In 1973, the United States imported 36 percent of its oil, up from 28 percent a year earlier, about half coming from the OPEC cartel. During the first eight months of this year, imports accounted for 13.4 million of the nearly 20 million barrels a day of U.S. consumption, again about half the imports coming from OPEC.


Far from becoming reality, the promise of energy independence by Nixon and every president since is more remote than ever.


"I think it's a false hope. The politicians love to say 'I'm going to move this country to energy independence.' It's not possible. It's a goal that's not feasible," says Robert Ebel, a senior adviser in the energy and security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank.


If you're talking about zero dependence on foreign oil "we can't do it" because even with the new emphasis on alternative fuels "we're going to be using the same kind of primary energy in 2020 that we're using today, though maybe in slightly different percentages," says Ebel.


"There are very few if any (countries) that are energy independent. They have to import something," said Ebel.


Were it not for oil, the United States might well be energy independent. It has more coal than it needs, and plenty of natural gas; 104 nuclear reactors, and the potential for plenty of wind energy and biomass fuels such as ethanol. With only 5 percent of the world's population, the U.S. consumes nearly a quarter of its energy.


Jay Hakes, former head of the government's Energy Information Administration and author of a recent book "A Declaration of Energy Independence," says skeptics miss the point.


"I don't think it requires going to zero percent imports," to end the country's "damaging dependence on foreign oil," Hakes said in an interview. He argues that the United States cut its oil imports in half from 1977 to 1982, from 8.6 million to 4.3 million barrels a day. While it "goes against conventional wisdom," dramatic cuts can be made again, he said.


Gal Luft, co-founder of the pro-energy independence Set America Free Coalition says it's all about national security "not having to kowtow to regimes that are hostile" because of oil. "It's got nothing to do with self sufficiency," Luft said in an interview, calling that a "simplistic view of energy independence."



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