from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Is U.S. Energy Independence Possible?

June 21, 2012

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Fossil Fuels

It depends on how you define it.

Take oil, for example. The recent, sustained downturn in U.S. oil imports is already the talk of the town, but to recap: The United States is importing far less foreign oil to satisfy its domestic needs than it was even a few years ago. This trend is very likely to continue in the coming years.

Observing this new reality, commentators have been wrangling about whether the United States will ever become energy independent in oil. Some emphatically say yes, others passionately say no.

The first camp argues that yes, the United States might achieve energy independence in oil in the coming decades, or at the very least, that that prospect isn’t as far-fetched as it once appeared. They forecast that U.S. oil production might overtake consumption one not-too-distant day, and hence that the country will become energy independent.

The other camp disagrees. Even if the United States were to become a net oil exporter, they contend, oil prices in the United States would still be tied to events elsewhere. After all, they note, oil prices are set on a global market. Events in one corner of the world affect oil prices everywhere. To become truly independent—by which they mean, for oil supply and demand abroad to have no bearing on oil prices at home—the country would have to completely cut off oil trade with the rest of the world. Short of that unimaginable scenario, U.S. energy independence will remain a chimera.

Set aside whether you think the country will ever produce more oil than it consumes, or whether becoming a net oil exporter is a worthwhile goal. There’s a more basic point that’s getting lost in this debate: the distinction between energy independence, literally speaking (also known as energy autarky), and energy self-sufficiency.

Is U.S. energy independence achievable? If you define “energy independence” in oil as a United States where the price of a barrel of oil is totally unaffected by oil supply and demand abroad, then no, it isn’t. The chances of that scenario coming to pass are essentially nil.

But if you define “energy independence” as many analysts do—as energy self-sufficiency, or producing more than we consume—then that’s another matter. That’s a scenario that, in my view, is becoming more and more important to consider as a long-term possibility.

So, is U.S. energy independence possible? The answer depends mostly on how you define it.

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