The myth of energy independence

Robert Bryce, author of "Gusher of Lies"


Bob Moon: Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie... All things that identify us as Americans on this Fourth of July.

Maybe we could add one more: How about our quest for energy independence? That's something we've been talking about for a long time. but is it really an attainable goal?

Robert Bryce is a freelance journalist who specializes in energy issues and the author of "Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence."

Mr. Bryce, thanks for joining us.

Robert Bryce: Happy to be here Bob.

Moon: This independence day, we're talking about an idea that's been floating around for quite a while in American politics and policy: that we need to be independent from foreign oil. It's pretty clear right from the title of your book where you stand on that notion, but this has been around for a long time. Where and when did this idea come from?

Bryce: Well, it originated in the Nixon administration. Richard Nixon gave a speech in early 1974 in which he declared that the U.S. would be energy independent by 1980. Obviously, we know that didn't happen. Gerald Ford promised it, Jimmy Carter promised it, we've heard about it from essentially every American president since Nixon, but now in the wake of 9/11, we've heard these renewed calls for energy independence and it's no more possible today than it was in Nixon's time.

Moon: Well, it's understandable why this idea is so appealing though.

Bryce: Well, sure, and as I state in my book, I think there are four factors that create or contribute to what I think is kind of a free-floating anxiety in America about energy issues and it's the second Iraq war, global warming, peak oil and terrorism. What these advocates for energy independence have done in recent times is conflate the issue of oil and terrorism and created this argument that, oh, if only we use less foreign oil then all would be better, but it's simply not true.

Moon: What do you think people interpret this to mean when they talk about energy independence?

Bryce: Well, it's hard to say. I can't answer you directly. I know that this issue polls well. When they poll likely voters, this issue of energy independence is the one issue that gives people hope. It gives them hope that somehow there's a way forward in dealing with these apparently intractable issues.

Moon: Well, I think to many people energy independence can help drive innovation and as Americans, we have a strong can-do identity, being independent in all regards. Why do you think this idea is so dangerous?

Bryce: Look, I just recalculated these numbers last night to look at the size of the global energy sector. The world uses about 80 billion barrels of oil equivalent per year. That means that the global energy sector on an annual basis is worth over $7 trillion. The idea that the U.S., the world's single biggest energy consumer can be independent of the world's single biggest business is ludicrous on its face.

Moon: I'm reminded of that movie title from a while back "No Way Out." Is that the case?

Bryce: Well, look, there are ways forward in terms of U.S. energy consumption. I'm a big advocate and believer in natural gas vehicles. The U.S. imports 60 percent of its oil; it only imports 20 percent of its natural gas. We could make better use of our domestically produced natural gas in the terrestrial transportation sector. I think that the market is already moving towards non-oil alternatives -- we're seeing growing interest in electric cars -- but we're only going to quit using oil when we come up with something that's cheaper, cleaner, more convenient or all of the above.

Moon: If energy independence is a myth, then what language should we be using for what it is we're trying to accomplish here?

Bryce: I think it should clearly be energy interdependence. We accept our interdependence in other markets, whether it's fresh flowers or iPods or the cell phones that we use, we are interdependent in so many other commodities, so I don't understand why politicians feel this need to single out energy as an area where we should be independent. It makes no sense. So I think we need to move beyond this myth that we can be self-sufficient when it comes to the single most important commodity in the economy.

Moon: Well, Happy Interdependence Day, then. Robert Bryce is the author of "Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence." Thanks for your views.

Bryce: Thank you.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.
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Oh, and one other observation...

In 1773, some Bostonites struck at what was then the "liquid fuel" that was critical to their economy in their Boston Tea Party...

Being concerned about fundamental components of our economy and the influence that other countries and regions have over those components is as old as there has been international trade.

Mr. Bryce's statement that energy is a commodity like anything else such as flowers is dead wrong for one reason--all of the prices for our other commodities are directly tied to energy prices. The cost of commodities are directly a function of how expensive the energy it takes to make, pack, ship, sell, and consume.

Mr. Bryce claims to "not understand" why politicians single out energy independence as an issue. Allow me to enlighten him. Energy dependence is a political issue with profound economic and foreign policy consequenses. Based in part (and in the opinion of many largely because) of our dependence on foreign oil from the Middle East, we have for decades invested time, money and most recently intervened militarily in order to "stabilize" the region and maintain the supply of energy available from there. This includes diplomatic and economic relationships with regimes that offer very little else as friends and call into question our commitment to freely elected governments. Some of these negative consequences could be avoided if we were able to rely more heavily on our own domestic resources for energy. In addition, it should not go unrecognized that many oil-rich states are rapidly developing and expanding their own economies with the dollars we are paying them for their oil. It would make more sense to keep some of that money here in the US to invest in our own economy and critical infrastructure.

A diabolical invader from outer space could not do more harm to this country than what has been done by automobiles and junk food. These have made us country fat and lazy ... .

You want energy independence? Get rid of the cars. All of them. Get rid of sprawl, too. In short order, a;ternatives would appear. I suspect people would end up enjoying themselves a lot more after they escape the rat race and pay attention to their families and communities.

Today, it's all 'economy, economy, economy' ... all the time. We've come full circle, slaves to The Economy, now we are kowtowing to another king:


"consuming nations that plan to raise taxes on oil - either directly or via carbon taxes. We cannot complain that oil prices are too high and then tax it more. If we believe higher oil prices would benefit the ecosystem, the Saudi Princes can oblige us."

Nah, can't declare independence from this dude ...

Energy independence is a ready soapbox because every time things have gotten sticky in the Middle East since the Nixon administration, we the people have borne the economic brunt of being "mono-cultured" with regard to our ground transport fuel. Bryce is right in calling energy independence a "Gusher of Lies", but how about *not* keeping all of our eggs in one basket with respect to transport fuels?
I applaud his temerity to suggest using compressed natural gas (CNG) for "terrestrial transportation:" we have a lot of it in the wellhead and an established distribution system up to the local level (but not for stations--yet), its production can also be population driven--human sanitary waste provides excellent feedstock for methane, as do landfills.

Also, the technology already exists to store amounts of CNG comparable to a gasoline tankful at 500psi. ( http://www.greencarcongress.com/2007/02/new_highdensity.html ) A company in the US, Energtek (http://www.energtek.com), has already started to market similar technology (ADsorbed Natural Gas, or ANG) in the far east for scooters and motorcycles.

Now, with respect to oil shale, tar sands, and coal liquification, I don't believe that either extraction or conversion or distillation to gasoline level purity can be achieved without substantially higher energy inputs (including lots of natural gas) than would be required to just tank up with CNG. I may be wrong, and I will study the Knights' proposal, but any system requiring you to dig it up, separate the liquid from the solids and then crack the liquid strikes me as awfully energy--and, as a result,cost--intensive. That is before we consider the environmental costs of it versus directly tapping into a waste stream that is going to be there as long as people keep eating.

Peak oil is a farce! We have 1.5 trillion barrels of oil that can be derived from oil shale, and 250 years of coal for liquid fuel. In other words, we have nearly 500 years of fuel supplies in the US.

If that wasn't clear, we have enough fuel to provide for our own needs for almost 500 years without importing another barrel of oil, not to mention the thousands of people that could be put to work.

Is this isolationist thinking? Nope. If we begin providing for our own needs, the oil we now consume can be placed on the world market for others to consume, thus boosting the world economy.

"Drill and Mine US Oil--Buy and Refine US Oil!" (copyright 2008, kelly and dorthey knight, http://imaknoyd.wordpress.com)

As U.S. domestic oil production declines, the U.S. becomes more independent on imported oil. Because there are no alternatives that will provide liquid fuels to replace global oil production declines, we are highly dependent on imported oil. Read about this Peak Oil problem in this 45 page report that can be downloaded, copied, and distributed/ emailed: http://www.peakoilassociates.com/POAnalysis.html

While I agree with most of Robert Bryce's prescriptions, I think he gets his history dead wrong. Energy independence and mineral independence, more generally, have been with us for much longer than the Nixon Administration, though certainly the 1970s gave birth to the fairly sustained discussion we are continuing today. In 1914, as war began in Europe, George Otis Smith, the Director of the United States Geological Survey, published a pamphlet titled _Our Mineral Resources: How to Make America Industrially Independent_. Smith worried about a number of minerals, including petroleum. He even suggested that the US would someday have to conserve its coal resources, which formed the "Nation's industrial life." Independence has reemerged at various intervals since that day, especially during times of international conflict. We just happen to live in its most current incarnation.

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