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The Seven Myths of Energy Independence

Why forging a sustainable energy future is dependent on foreign oil

Myth #1
Energy Independence Is Good

On February 1, 2006, Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, arrived at the White House in a state of agitation. The night before, in his State of the Union address, President Bush had declared the United States to be "addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world." He had announced plans to "break this addiction" by developing alternatives—including a multibillion-dollar subsidized ramp-up of biofuels—and had boldly stated that by 2025, America could cut imports from Gulf states by three-quarters and "make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past." "I was taken aback," Prince Faisal later told cnn, "and I raised this point with government officials."

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Two years on, anyone who's been to a gas station or a grocery store knows the prince had very little to worry about. Despite supposedly bold initiatives such as last year's Energy Independence and Security Act, America is no freer from foreign oil: Since 2006, imports have remained steady at about 13 million barrels every day, while the price for each of those barrels has jumped by $30. And though federal efforts to encourage biofuel production have significantly boosted output, our heavily subsidized ethanol refiners now use so much corn (closing in on a third of the total crop) that prices for all grains have soared, sparking inflation here at home and food riots abroad.

Okay, so maybe ethanol's critics are right, and turning food into fuel isn't the smartest way to wean ourselves from imported oil. But the deeper lesson here isn't that Washington backed the wrong weapon in the war for energy independence, but that most policymakers—and Americans generally—still think "energy independence" is a goal we can, or should, achieve. Nine in ten voters say the country is too dependent on foreign crude. Every major presidential hopeful formulated some kind of strategy for energy liberation (Rudy Giuliani unveiled his at a nascar race), and between 2001 and 2006 the number of media references to "energy independence" jumped by a factor of eight.

And on the surface, the argument seems solid. Imported oil, some 60 percent of the oil we use, exposes our economy and politics to stresses halfway around the world (bin Laden calls it "the umbilical cord and lifeline of the crusader community"). It also increases our already massive trade imbalance, which must be corrected by ever-greater federal borrowing, and funnels tens of billions of dollars to the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Venezuela—countries that are unfriendly and, in some cases, actively anti-American. What's not to like about energy independence?

In a word, everything. Despite its immense appeal, energy independence is a nonstarter—a populist charade masquerading as energy strategy that's no more likely to succeed (and could be even more damaging) than it was when Nixon declared war on foreign oil in the 1970s. Not only have we no realistic substitute for the oceans of oil we import, but many of the crash programs being touted as a way to quickly develop oil replacements—"clean coal," for example, or biofuels—come at a substantial environmental and political cost. And even if we had good alternatives ready to deploy—a fleet of superefficient cars, say, or refineries churning out gobs of cheap hydrogen for fuel cells—we'd need decades, and great volumes of energy, including oil, to replace all the cars, pipelines, refineries, and other bits of the old oil infrastructure—and thus decades in which we'd depend on oil from our friends in Riyadh, Moscow, and Caracas. Paradoxically, to build the energy economy that we want, we're going to lean heavily on the energy economy that we have.

None of which is exactly news. Thoughtful observers have been trying to debunk energy independence since Nixon's time. And yet the dream refuses to die, in no small part because it offers political cover for a whole range of controversial initiatives. Ethanol refiners wave the banner of independence as they lobby Congress for massive subsidies. Likewise for electric utilities and coal producers as they push for clean coal and a nuclear renaissance. And it shouldn't surprise that some of the loudest proponents of energy liberation support plans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other off-limits areas to oil drilling—despite the fact that such moves would, at best, cut imports by a few percentage points. In the doublespeak of today's energy lexicon, says Julia Bovey of the Natural Resources Defense Council, "'energy independence' has become code for 'drill it all.'"

Yet it isn't only the hacks for old energy and Archer Daniels Midland who are to blame. Some proponents of good alternatives like solar and wind have also harped on fears of foreign oil to advance their own sectors—even though many of these technologies are decades away from being meaningful oil replacements.

Put another way, the "debate" over energy independence is not only disingenuous, it's also a major distraction from the much more crucial question—namely, how we're going to build a secure and sustainable energy system. Because what America should be striving for isn't energy independence, but energy security—that is, access to energy sources that are reliable and reasonably affordable, that can be deployed quickly and easily, yet are also safe and politically and environmentally sustainable. And let's not sugarcoat it. Achieving real, lasting energy security is going to be extraordinarily hard, not only because of the scale of the endeavor, but because many of our assumptions about energy—about the speed with which new technologies can be rolled out, for example, or the role of markets—are woefully exaggerated. High oil prices alone won't cure this ill: We're burning more oil now than we were when crude sold for $25 a barrel. Nor will Silicon Valley utopian­ism: Thus far, most of the venture capital and innovation is flowing into status quo technologies such as biofuels. And while Americans have a proud history of inventing ourselves out of trouble, today's energy challenge is fundamentally different. Nearly every major energy innovation of the last century—from our cars to transmission lines—was itself built with cheap energy. By contrast, the next energy system will have to contend with larger populations and be constructed using far fewer resources and more expensive energy.

So it's hardly surprising that policymakers shy away from energy security and opt instead for the soothing platitudes of energy independence. But here's the rub: We don't have a choice. Energy security is nonnegotiable, a precondition for all security, like water or food or defense. Without it, we have no economy, no progress, no future. And to get it, we'll not only have to abandon the chimera of independence once and for all, but become the very thing that many of us have been taught to dread—unrepentant energy globalists.

Myth #2
Ethanol Will Set Us Free

What's wrong with energy independence? Let's start with the sheer physical enormity of replacing imports. Even if we limit the discussion to oil (and America buys boatloads of foreign natural gas, electricity, and even coal), the job is far more daunting than many liberationists—or environmentalists—want to believe.

If we distilled our entire corn crop into ethanol, the fuel produced would displace less than a sixth of the gasoline we currently guzzle, and other candidates, like hydrogen, are even more marginal. The challenge isn't simply quantity, but quality. Oil dominates the energy economy, and especially the transportation sector (which is 95 percent dependent on crude), in part because no other fuel offers the same combination of massive energy density and ease of handling. As author Richard Heinberg has observed, enough energy is contained in a single gallon of gasoline to replace 240 hours of human labor—considerably more than oil's likely rivals.

And because oil is relatively easy to produce, the energy "investment" needed to exploit that massive energy content is small. On average, an oil company burns the energy equivalent of 1 gallon of oil to produce 20 gallons of oil. In other words, oil's energy return on energy invested is quite high. By contrast, the return for oil's declared alternatives is quite low. For example, hydrogen, once considered a natural successor to oil, is so tricky to refine and handle that, by one study, a gallon of hydrogen contains nearly 25 percent less energy than was consumed producing it. As for ethanol's energy return, scientists are debating whether it's slightly positive or altogether negative.

Oil's qualities were unbeatable when it cost $25 a barrel, and even at $100, it still has a critical advantage. Because it was generated ages ago and left for us in deep underground reservoirs, oil exists more or less in a state of economic isolation; that is, oil can be produced—pumped from the ground and refined—without directly impinging on other pieces of the world economy. By contrast, many of oil's competitors are intimately linked to that larger economy, in the sense that to make more of an alternative (ethanol, say) is to have less of something else (food, sustainably arable land).

Granted, oil's advantages will ultimately prove illusory due to its huge environmental costs and finite supply. But oil's decline won't, by itself, make alternatives any less problematic. Higher oil prices do encourage alternatives to expand, but in a world of finite resources, these expansions can come at substantial cost. Because good U.S. farmland is already scarce, every additional acre of corn for ethanol is an acre unavailable for soybeans, or wheat, whose prices then also rise—a ripple effect that affects meat, milk, soft drinks.... And for the record, to make enough corn ethanol to replace all our gasoline, we'd need to plant 71 percent of our farmland with fuel crops.

To be fair, ethanol can be produced in a way that is less disruptive to the food economy. Cellulosic ethanol, for example, is made from wood chips, crop detritus, and other organic waste. And in Brazil they make ethanol from sugarcane—a process a third as energy intensive as corn ethanol's. But cellulosic ethanol, though quite promising, is not yet commercial, while Brazilian ethanol is, well, Brazilian: It's effectively barred from our market by a 54 cents per gallon tariff, which U.S. lawmakers defend on the grounds of energy independence, but which coincidently leaves corn ethanol, with its massive federal subsidy, as pretty much the only game in town. So much corn is now going to biofuel that the food and energy markets are effectively linked, an unprecedented coupling that not only disrupts global food security but also undermines corn ethanol's usefulness as an oil replacement.

The ripple effect of energy alternatives isn't confined to the economic sphere. As eager farmers have expanded their corn crops (U.S. farmers planted more acres in 2007 than anytime since World War II), they've tilled land not suited for intensive agriculture, exacerbating erosion and other environmental problems. Corn is also the most chemically intensive commercial grain crop; runoff attributable to the ethanol boom is causing oceanic dead zones and pesticide-laden groundwater.

Ethanol is an easy target, but the sad truth is that all of the ballyhooed alternatives carry at least some environmental or other external costs. Wind requires vast amounts of land; solar-cell manufacturing is chemically intensive. Nuclear energy is steeped in safety and security concerns. And although the United States could fuel its entire car fleet with a synthetic gasoline made from abundant coal, syngas is even more ecologically challenged than oil. Industry likes to trumpet potential technologies to capture and sequester coal's carbon dioxide, but the federal government has cut research funding. And as Severin Borenstein, an economist at the University of California-Berkeley, points out, even if we do find climate-friendly ways to turn coal into fuel, that's only one end of the process: "We're still going to be burning that fuel in cars and thus releasing all that CO2 out the tailpipe."

Such problems drive home a critical flaw in the paradigm of energy independence—namely, that energy isn't a zero-sum game anymore. We can no longer look at the energy economy as a constellation of discrete sectors that can be manipulated separately; everything is tied together, which means that fixing a problem in one part of the system all but invariably creates a new problem, or a whole series of problems, somewhere else.

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