Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Obama Plans to Wean U.S. Off Foreign Oil... Just Like the Seven Presidents Before Him

No one has summed it up better than Jon Stewart did last year: since Nixon, every U.S. president, Democrat and Republican, has bemoaned our dangerous addiction to foreign oil. And yet, U.S. oil imports have increased nearly constantly since 1949, with the exception of a drop in the late 70s and early 80s when the oil crises of the 70s forced Americans to get serious about conservation and efficiency. Now the U.S. imports more than 11 million barrels of oil each day. Almost two-thirds of our oil comes from imports, and half of that comes from unstable or unfriendly countries.

Source: Council on Foreign Relations

Today, President Obama reiterated his wish to cut oil imports by one-third in a decade. His proposed strategy:
  1. Finding and producing more oil within our borders.
  2. Reducing overall dependence with alternative fuels and efficiency.
Step 1 is what Republicans want to focus on (Drill Baby Drill!); Step 2 is what Democrats want to focus on. But even with such a bipartisan strategy, nothing is being done, just as nothing has been to seriously reduce our oil imports.

The reality is, exploring for and producing more oil at home is not a long term fix. The same arguments were brought up during the 2008 campaign when Sen. McCain and others called for expansion of domestic drilling, ostensibly as relief from high summer gasoline prices, and again by Obama last year when he announced his expanded offshore drilling proposal (less than a month before the BP spill). All this despite experts agreeing that new drilling wouldn't cut gasoline prices more than a few cents per gallon—decades later.

And a decrease in oil prices will only lead to an increase in gasoline consumption, which will create a need for more immediate oil resources, which will lead to an increase in oil imports—right back where we started. (Keep in mind that the U.S. has 2% of the world's oil reserves and consumes over 25% of the world's oil.)

What is really going to help us reach oil independence is Step 2.

Advances in alternative fuel vehicles, as well as electric, plug-in, and hybrid electric vehicles are important, and are slowly beginning to penetrate the market. Increasing fuel economy is important too, and the Obama Administration has taken some of the greatest strides in decades to increase the efficiency of American cars (to the chagrin of many Republicans).

But while more efficient cars will certainly decrease the amount of gasoline per mile traveled, they will probably not lead to the deep fuel savings that will be necessary to wean us off foreign oil. That may just need to come from conservation, in the form of less driving and more walking, biking, and public transit.

Jimmy Carter's famous conservation
talk. Source:

Obama hasn't mentioned conservation as part of his strategy for oil reduction, likely because it's not in the "American spirit" to have to sacrifice anything. It's political suicide to campaign for increased gas taxes—despite the myriad benefits—and the harsh criticism Jimmy Carter received for wearing a sweater in the Oval Office and asking Americans to start saving energy is still ringing in most politicians' ears.

In the 112th Congress, Obama has no hope to pass any legislation that will reduce American oil consumption. The only bills he will be able to sign will attempt to expand domestic oil production, a boon to oil companies, but far from a solution to our oil dependence (not to mention an increased risk for catastrophic impacts on the environment, the most grave example of which, after less than a year, many Americans already seem to have forgotten).

President Obama may find it an opportune time to repeat the calls for oil independence as unrest in the Middle East continues to spread and reportedly affect world oil prices. But for serious change to occur, serious measures will need to be taken, measures which the President will surely not be willing to take until at least 2013 (if he is reelected) and which the current Congress will never enact.

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