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Coast Guard inspectors approach a supertanker off the coast of California. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Energy Independence: Would it Live Up to the Hype?

Energy independence is a lot like the extravagant Christmas present you wished for all year as a child. For Americans, it’s been the equivalent of a pony, or a Red Ryder BB gun  – we hoped for it, we yearned for it, but we never completely believed we’d get it. Now that it’s potentially within reach, one of the key questions is: will it live up to the hype?

The International Energy Agency, in its closely watched World Energy Outlook report last week, said the United States could become the world’s No. 1 producer of oil and natural gas by 2020, and might be “almost self-sufficient in energy, in net terms,” by 2035. That’s not exactly around the corner, but it’s also not that far off, historically speaking. As a point of reference, the last time the United States could meet its own energy needs was the same year Sputnik was launched: 1957.  (See related story: “U.S. to Overtake Saudi Arabia, Russia as World’s Top Energy Producer”)

Mind you, this is a projection, not a guarantee, but it lines up with analyses from other organizations, like the U.S. government’s Annual Energy Outlook and the BP Statistical Review of Energy. We could still go off the rails here (20 years is more than enough time to screw up a trend). In fact there are two factors driving this, and there’s no guarantee we’ll continue doing either of them.

One is fracking, which is opening up domestic reserves of shale oil and natural gas that were previously out of reach. Fracking is a huge change in our energy landscape, but it also is bitterly controversial because of the potential impact on groundwater and other environmental issues. The second factor, which is getting less attention, is increasing energy efficiency, particularly raising fuel efficiency standards for cars. The IEA estimates this may account for 45 percent of the total shift toward U.S. energy independence. Both of those trends have opponents, both could still be rolled back.

But the bigger issue here is whether energy independence will actually accomplish what many Americans hope it would. The belief in energy independence as a goal rose out of the oil embargos and gas shortages of the 1970s, and a lot has changed in the world. It’s worth asking several big questions here:

Will it control gas prices? The answer seems to be, very likely not. Oil is one big global market, where lots of people are selling and nearly everyone is buying. Just like any other commodities market, oil markets bounce up and down based on day to day changes in supply, demand, politics, information and levels of fear.

If the United States moves up from third to first place in terms of world production of oil, we’d probably be a stabilizing influence on the markets. Unlike the Middle Eastern nations or Russia, we’ve got no history of using our oil taps as a political tool. But that doesn’t guarantee that turmoil or deliberate manipulation among any of the other oil producers can’t drive up prices. A good example is the tumult that occurred in oil markets as the Quaddafi regime toppled in Libya, even though Libya only produces about 2 percent of the world’s oil.

How will it change the United States’ relationship  with the Middle East? One of the dreams of proponents of energy independence has been that if we didn’t need the oil, we wouldn’t have to deal with the messy politics of the region. Nor would we end up paying enormous sums of money to oppressive regimes that didn’t particularly like us. There’s truth in that. But it’s also true that the Middle East still has enormous reserves of oil at a time when global demand continues to rise. China, India and the rest of the developing world will buy that oil if we don’t. And disruptions to the oil flow would still disrupt the global economy. The IEA itself notes that oil supply routes from the Middle East to Asia would become an increasing concern under their projections. If our allies and the world economy are hurt by oil disruptions, would we act?

What’s more, while oil is doubtless one factor behind U.S. interests in the Middle East, we would still have humanitarian and security interests in the region. We probably can’t just close our eyes to what’s happening there.

What will this mean for climate change? Well, it won’t do much of anything to solve it. Granted, the energy efficiency gains that are part of this trend are helping control overall fossil fuel use and thus cut greenhouse gases. And using more natural gas for energy production has reduced our reliance on coal, which is currently the most problematic of the fossil fuels. But energy independence in itself may remove some of the economic pressure to find alternatives to fossil fuels.

It’s worth remembering, in the frequently repeated holiday movie “A Christmas Story,” that young Ralphie has two things he’s really excited about. One is his BB gun, and the other is his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring. The BB gun proves to be the best gift he’d ever get; the decoder ring is kind of a letdown.

So many politicians and experts have been promising so much from the idea of energy independence for so long that it’s likely to be a letdown for the American public as well. Don’t get us wrong – the implications could be huge. But they’re not likely to be what people expected.