The concept of energy independence

Matt Yglesias speaks good common sense about why this concept is such a non-starter:

John Kerry’s call to make America independent from foreign oil provides me with yet another opportunity for one of my bitch-and-moan sessions about this bogus concept. Folks on both the left and the right like to pitch their energy plans as making American more independent from foreign oil, but the whole idea is, as I say, bogus. The problem is not that we’re dependent on foreign oil, the problem is that we’re dependent on oil. The current economy of the entire first world and, especially, the United States is predicated on the use of enormous quantities of oil in order to, among other things, power all our cars and trucks. The importance of “foreign” (read: Middle Eastern) oil in all of this isn’t that we can’t get oil from anywhere else, it’s that Middle Eastern oil is the cheapest oil around.

Hence, production decisions taken in the Middle East essentially determine the price of oil on the global market. This is the case for all countries, even countries that don’t import much (or any) Middle Eastern oil, because it’s a fungible commodity. The US could totally cease imports from the Gulf region and we would still be just as dependent as we are.

The only way to make us more independent of the insidious foreign oil would be to either radical alter the geology of the earth, thus somehow making oil from somewhere else cheaper to extract, or else, more realistically, to reduce our economy’s dependence on oil. One could envision, say, a massive campaign to power our cars with hydrogen fuel and to build large numbers of nuclear power plants to create the hydrogen fuel (if you don’t build the nuclear plants, though, you’ll just wind up using oil to make the fuel that replaced the oil in your cars — this would be good for the environment, but do nothing to the economics of oil), but if we did this we’d have to put all the waste somewhere and would probably become dependent on foreign sources of uranium or something.

I agree, although I would not so rapidly dismiss the idea of making oil from somewhere else cheaper to extract.


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