Energy Independence, Past and Future

The end of President Bush’s time in office is still 14 months away, but already, I can guarantee two things. First, the next president will be elected on a promise to lead the nation to energy independence. Second, the promise won’t be kept.

Neither of those predictions requires a supernatural ability to see into the future. As it happens, every major contender, Republican as well as Democratic, has vowed to liberate us from the cruel grip of imported oil. Take any candidate’s statements on the subject, sneak them into a speech by any other candidate, and no one would notice the difference. Even the candidates.

To take two random samples, here’s Mitt Romney: “The United States must become energy independent. . . Our decisions and destiny cannot be bound to the whims of oil-producing states.” And here’s Hillary Clinton: “We’ve got to get serious about ending our dependence on foreign oil. We could create millions of new jobs through new energy.” Or was it the other way around?

Both parties like the idea of energy independence because it suggests a steely determination to protect our security, combat global warming, reduce the cost of driving and strengthen domestic industries. Liberals also enjoy the notion for its aura of sticking it to Big Oil. Conservatives see it as part of the war on Islamofascism.

As a marketing idea, it’s pure gold. Only as policy does it turn to straw.

If energy independence were truly feasible, it probably would have been achieved back in the 1970s, after President Richard Nixon embraced it. In 1973, we imported about a third of the oil we used, compared with 60 percent today. Domestic production was at its peak. OPEC was in the process of turning the energy world upside down by quadrupling the price of oil.

But the idea withered on the vine — because of the brutal reality that even at a steep price, imported oil was cheap compared to doing without. That remains true today. And though global warming calls for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the most likely replacements for oil are a poor fit for that role.

The chief attraction of energy independence is that we could fill up our cars and operate our economy without caring what happens in Iran, Venezuela or Russia. As if. So long as we use a significant amount of oil, regardless of where it’s produced, we remain aboard the cost roller coaster. When the price of Middle Eastern oil soars, it takes the price of domestic crude along for the ride.

It’s enchanting to imagine swearing off foreign oil in favor of ethanol made from wholesome Illinois corn, or fuels derived from West Virginia coal. But even if all the corn grown in this country went toward ethanol, it would cut our gasoline consumption by no more than 12 percent. In cost terms, ethanol can thrive only with lavish federal subsidies. In climate terms, the switch offers small benefits at best.

So why does ethanol get treated like the prettiest girl at the prom? Because our leaders’ motive is pandering to American farmers and corporations, not making sound energy policy. If you want to know the main reason the federal government subsidizes ethanol, I’ve got two words for you: Iowa caucuses.

As for coal, schemes to turn it into liquid fuel for use in cars and planes have been around for half a century — including a dismal failure launched during President Jimmy Carter’s administration. Besides being expensive, reports a recent article in Scientific American, “liquid coal produces more than twice the global warming emissions as regular gasoline and almost double those of ordinary diesel.”

That minor flaw might be fixed — but only by raising the cost even more. Of the other potential alternative fuels, none looks capable of competing without massive government help.

Reducing our consumption of oil would be a good thing, if only because it would reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. But replacing oil with alternatives that also pollute is an exercise in missing the point. And as ethanol demonstrates, a drive for energy independence is likely to veer off into wasteful handouts to powerful interests.

A better approach would be a carbon tax, which would simultaneously promote conservation, curb emissions and give an impartial boost to environmentally friendly alternatives. But selling a carbon tax to the American people would be a tough assignment.