“Energy independence” is a buzz phrase that both major party candidates will utter ad infinitum in the run-up to the November presidential election. Both Barack Obama and John McCain espouse energy independence, but with differing policy points. The phrase has become associated not only with debate about the economy, but also national security. But what if energy independence during the next presidency, much less the next decade, is a myth? The premise of the article The Seven Myths of Energy Independence, by Paul Roberts, posits just that idea.
Contrary to the current political meme of energy independence, Paul Roberts argues that a sustainable global energy future is dependent on foreign oil. He says, “paradoxically, to build the energy economy that we want, we’re going to lean heavily on the energy economy that we have.” His criticism begins by arguing that energy independence distracts from the real issue of a global sustainable energy future. Roberts turns to corn-based ethanol, a subsidized alternative with which there are a multitude of problems associated. Ethanol pales in comparison to oil with regard to energy equivalents and production costs. Corn-based ethanol requires land and water resources and affects U.S. and global food supplies. Other alternative energies have similar costs. Wind power requires land and many view the turbines as an inconvenience at best. Nuclear energy is surrounded by fear about safety and environmental concerns. Furthermore, the industries that offer alternatives to oil stand to gain subsidies and other government funding from supporting the idea of energy independence.
Roberts then moves to the idea that reducing demand through conservation will reduce the cost of oil and increase our “energy security.” Even if the U.S. were to reduce demand through increased efficiency of the domestic fleet, that reduction would be swallowed whole by the increase in the growth in demand from emerging countries, effectively eliminating any cost benefit from that reduction. He argues that because the American economy is intertwined with the global economy, sustainable energy will be subsidized by current oil structure. Any reduction in demand through more efficient vehicles could take as long as 12 years, due to the market turnover of the U.S. fleet. The effect of increased efficiency would be slow and muted due to the global economy, eliminating any benefit to U.S. “energy security.”
The idea of U.S. energy independence at its heart contains the idea of a sustainable energy future. The American and world economies require cheap power to continue growth. Roberts argues that energy independence rhetoric feeds the fears of the domestic public, ignoring the real need for globally sustainable energy. The ultimate goal should be new sources of energy that are proven to be efficient and “sustainably global.” The rhetoric of American energy independence is so steeped in political interests that its well-meaning tone works to undermine the true need for a global sustainable energy future.
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