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On Sept. 19, 2007, Republican candidate Mitt Romney delivered the standard Republican stump speech decrying big government and advocating lower taxes. He criticized members of his own party for spending too much and said the United States is too dependent on foreign oil.
"It doesn't make sense to me to send $1-billion a day out of our country," Romney said. "We can be energy independent and should be."
Everyone agrees with Romney that U.S. dependence on foreign oil is not a good thing. But that's where the accuracy of his comment ends, experts say.
If Romney had said we "should" be energy independent he might be able to get away with it. But he chooses to be more emphatic, saying we "can" be. At the moment, that's not so.
American presidents have been promising to make the United States more fuel-independent for decades, says Mike Rodgers, a leading oil expert with PFC Energy in Washington. When Richard Nixon made that pledge during the Arab oil embargo in 1973, Rodgers says the United States relied on foreign oil for 35 percent of its daily consumption. Now, 34 years later, the United States gets more than 60 percent of its energy from foreign oil supplies.
Electricity needs are not the issue. A combination of hydroelectricity, nuclear power and coal makes the United States relatively self-sufficient on electricity consumption. But our massive transportation sector consumes vast quantities of oil, and much of it comes from outside our borders. Imports have risen in the United States for the simple reason that with population growth our consumption has risen while our domestic production has dropped. For example, Alaska production is half what it was in the 1980s when the giant Prudhoe Bay field was at its peak.
Given available resources and existing technology, Romney's statement about becoming energy independent is little more than a pipe-dream, experts say.
"It's possible, just not likely," says David Rothkopf, president of Washington, D.C.-based consultancy Gartner Rothkopf LLC and a leading expert on energy issues. "It's not realistic. His heart is in the right place but I think he needs to look at the facts." (Rothkopf was a former deputy undersecretary of commerce for international trade policy in the Clinton administration.)
Rothkopf and others say that while the nation could conceivably achieve energy independence in the long term, it's just not realistic in the near term.
For the United States to achieve energy independence would take massive investment in a range of options, from new conservation technology, next-generation biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells, plug-in hybrids, as well as aggressively seeking fossil fuel resources in the United States.
Most of the newer technologies are not yet commercially viable, though they do hold great potential.
The real focus, experts say, needs to be on energy security, not independence, i.e., ensuring that we get our energy from a sufficiently diverse number of countries and different technologies, to reduce our vulnerability to political shocks and natural causes like hurricanes and climate change. Experts call this "energy interdependence."
T. Boone Pickens Jr., the Oklahoma oil tycoon, offered this solution in an interview in September 2007 with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review : "You can't become energy independent. That's out of the question because you're importing 60 percent of the oil that you use every day. ... If everybody in the United States started riding a bicycle, it'll work."
Interview with David Rothkopf, president of Washington, D.C.-based Gartner Rothkopf LLC on Sept. 21, 2007.
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