The myth of energy independence

Bob Moon Jul 4, 2008

The myth of energy independence

Bob Moon Jul 4, 2008


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.

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