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Is US Energy Independence a Reality?

Everybody favors it. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives - all want the United States to adopt energy policies that will free it from dependence on oil imports from the politically unstable Middle East.

Everybody favors it. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives - all want the United States to adopt energy policies that will free it from dependence on oil imports from the politically unstable Middle East.

When the United States invaded Iraq last spring, Iraqis set several oil fields ablaze. When Iraq was driven from Kuwait in 1991, it took eight months before the retributive fires in the oil fields were put out.

What if Saudi Arabia's autocratic regime were toppled and an anti-American regime took over? It might not torch Saudi oil fields but it might cut off exports, to cripple the U.S. economy.

Americans have experienced two major interruptions in oil supplies in less then three decades. They painfully raised gasoline and heating oil prices and evoked the specter of silent factories and empty highways. But there are difficulties with the panacea of energy independence:

First, there's no agreement on how to achieve that goal. One side presses for initiatives to promote energy efficiency and develop renewable fuels; another seeks to encourage more domestic production of conventional oil and natural gas. Second, and more important: Neither tactic will work, because the goal is hopelessly unrealistic.

Even if North America could magically find a way to meet all its petroleum needs domestically, it still wouldn't be independent. The price of oil is set by global markets, and the U.S. economy is too intertwined with other nations' to go it alone. Like it or not, we're all in this together.

But although Washington can't provide energy independence, there's much it can do to reduce the shock of a future oil embargo.

The fundamental dilemma is that this country is deeply dependent on oil to run its businesses and to move people and goods. In all, oil supplies nearly half of the nation's energy needs - far more than any other single source. And demand keeps growing: America burns more oil now than it did in the pre-OPEC-embargo days of the '70s. Domestic production of oil has steadily slipped, and the nation is even more reliant on imports today than before the oil crises of the '70s and '80s. And the usual nostrums for dealing with that reality don't hold up.

No Easy Fixes

Supply-siders want to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. At best, that would supply about 1.4 million barrels of oil a day - when imports are about 9 million barrels a day.

Conservation advocates press for stiffer fuel-economy requirements on cars and light trucks. The target is right: The second largest use of petroleum is to fuel motor vehicles. But dispassionate analysis by the National Academy of Sciences shows a 40 percent increase in economy standards - a figure the scientists say is realistic - would save only about 2.5 million barrels a day after 10 years and 6 million barrels after 25 years - while imports are expected to nearly double over those 25 years.

And renewable fuels, however much their future promise, could not do the job. They account for only 6 percent of the nation's energy. And wind and water power, for example, could not substitute for gas in conventional car and truck engines.

What Can Be Done

But if we are haunted by the ghost of a future of drastically reduced oil supplies, several things can be done:

Short term (the next 5 years): Expand and fill the national strategic oil reserve, mostly held in salt caverns along the Gulf of Mexico. Its capacity is 700 million barrels; right now it's holding 632 million. The energy bill that Congress failed to pass last week would have raised the maximum to 1 billion barrels, a three month supply in case of a total import interruption.

Mid term (5 to 25 years): Require greater efficiency from the transportation sector.

The biggest consumer of oil is business, which is already powerfully driven to conserve by its profit motive; in fact, it uses less energy today than in 1973, before the first oil crisis, even though the U.S. economy is twice as large.

Raising the efficiency standards for cars, and particularly light trucks, could go a long way toward mitigating the nation's vulnerability. Congress has consistently ducked that solution. But it should be done, and it should be accompanied by a boost in the federal gasoline tax. Consumers will need an incentive - like higher gas prices - to buy the more fuel-efficient cars.

At the same time, the federal government should seek to expand existing, more environmentally benign energy supplies, such as natural gas. The energy bill would have subsidized a new pipeline from Alaska to the Midwest. That would be useful. So would finding ways to make coal - the most plentiful U.S. conventional energy source - more clean-burning.

Long term (25 years and beyond): Petroleum- based fuels will run out some day, many decades from now. So Washington should spur development of alternative fuels. Ideally that would be renewable fuels based on the inexhaustible power of the sun. More realistically, Washington is exploring ways to use hydrogen as fuel, with fuel-cell technology (which converts chemicals to energy without pollutants) as the engine.

Hydrogen is the most plentiful element in nature and generally safe to handle and use. But putting it to practical use requires solving many technical and logistical problems: You can't drive into a gas station today and buy a tankful of hydrogen, even if your car could run on it.

Future Engine Technology

Besides, it's hard to foresee which technologies will succeed. In the late '80s, in the wake of the second OPEC oil crisis, the Carter administration committed $1.5 billion to developing synthetic fuels from coal. It went nowhere. France made a big push in the late '70s for energy independence, building multiple nuclear power plants. Yet it still depends heavily on oil imports.

So what's important now is to proceed to develop the next power technology not with flashy headlines and high expectations but in a measured and flexible way - so the nation's energy future will be sustainable, whatever happens in Middle East oil fields.

Author: Sam Maxwell

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