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Energy independence? For the U.S., it's a pipe dream

An oil rig pumps at sunset near the Wind Wolves Preserve north of the Los Padres National Forest, Calif.

Both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, have made declarations of energy independence for the U.S. The subject could come up in Wednesday's debate. But what does "energy independence" mean?

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to go on TV and proclaim freedom from foreign oil, energy pros get upset. "It's like listening to fingernails against a chalkboard," says industry veteran Mikkai Herberg. "Because you know better than this."

So what about the physical supply of oil -- the idea we need to drill our own, or get it from nearby friends? Location was what mattered in the energy crises of the 70s.

Herberg, now at the National Bureau for Asian Research, remembers. He could only pump gas then, based on his license plate number.

"We could fuel up on Friday coming over," he says, "and we could fuel up on Sunday going back -- but not on Saturday. Odd-even gas days, and gas lines of 30 or 40 cars, running out of gas while they were in line, pushing their vehicles to the pump."

Back then, oil markets were rigid. It's like your cable TV company: you're locked into a seller long term. And if something goes out, you're stuck.

Today, we can always buy oil from somewhere. If you pay a high enough price, whistle and it'll come.

Ed Chow is a Chevron veteran now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says, "You can have a tanker that starts from the Persian gulf destined for Rotterdam, and discover that the higher market's in Singapore, and go to Singapore instead. In mid-voyage."

Domestic supply matters less in today's global market of buyers and sellers. The good news is we can get the oil. The bad news: we all pay the same basic price. So, even if a country -- including ours -- is totally self-sufficient, we all get nailed if there's a world shock.

Chow recalls when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf.

"Norwegian gasoline prices went up," he says. "Norway is a major oil and gas exporter. Why should refinery closings in the United States affect them? Well, it did."

So to escape future volatility, the trick to independence is not to get off foreign oil but oil, period.

Still, there are other benefits to producing more domestic oil. And Americans are: in North Dakota, in the Gulf, in Texas, thanks to new technology and high selling prices.

Ed Morse at Citigroup figures North America will be the New Middle East by 2020. "It's what we call reserve-to-production ratio, the number of years of production we have," he says. "We were at around 20 years five years ago. We're now at 120 years."

Morse may be the most bullish of the bulls. He thinks we can cut imports to zero.

"If we eliminate our import bill for oil, we're going to basically eliminate the deficit," he says.

Perhaps. But say our oil imports go down by half, instead of to zero. If and when prices spike -- as they inevitably do -- more of the oil producers making money would be Americans.

"A lot of that wealth will stay in the U.S.," Herberg says.

So yes, there could be big economic benefits to more self-sufficiency. But in a global market, free at last from price volatility and shocks? Energy indep-- Best not to say that again. It makes these guys crazy.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.
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I heard 2 conflicting statements (paraphrased):
1. A tanker full of middle East oil, bound for Rotterdam, might re-route to Singapore to take advantage of price changes.
2. The price of oil is pretty much the same everywhere.

Changing the route of a supertanker sounds like an expensive move, so how does that square with statement 2?
Your show makes me think!

Thank you finally for the real story of energy independence! But you didn't go far enough. North Dakota exports oil - far more than is used there. But gasoline in North Dakota in the midst of oil rigs doesn't sell for 20 cents a gallon! Oil sells for the world price - maybe a little less because there's no shipping charge, but beneath the promise of "energy independence" is the implied promise of cheap gas. It's not going to happen!

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