Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Is the US Really Energy Independent?

Toward the end of Sunday night's presidential debate I was startled to hear Secretary Clinton reply to an audience question by stating, "We are now for the first time ever energy-independent." If the price of oil were $100, rather than $50, that might have constituted a "Free Poland" moment, recalling President Ford's famous gaffe in a 1976 debate.

This point is likely to get lost in the dueling fact-checking of both candidates' numerous claims, but while the overall US energy deficit has fallen from about a quarter of total consumption (net of exports) in 2008 to just 11% in 2015, we still import 8 million barrels per day of oil from other countries. That includes over 3 million barrels per day from OPEC, a figure that has been growing again as US oil and gas drilling slowed following the collapse of oil prices in late 2104.

Oil has always been at the heart of our notions of energy security and energy independence, because it is our most geopolitically sensitive energy source and the one for which it is hardest to devise large-scale substitutes. So although the US is certainly in a better overall position than it has been in decades, with progress on multiple aspects of energy, it is not yet energy independent, especially where it counts the most.

Moreover, the policies that Mrs. Clinton has proposed would, at least initially, be likely to expand that gap by imposing additional restrictions on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Mr. Trump, for his part, seemed to devote much of his response to Mr. Bone's debate question  talking about coal, which while still a significant player in electricity production has become largely irrelevant to the topic of energy independence, because its use is being displaced by other domestic energy sources, mainly natural gas and renewables like wind and solar power.

In fact, of the various contributors to the energy independence gains the US has made from 2008-15 (shown in blue in the above chart) the largest depend on fracking. Oil still makes up most of our remaining energy deficit, after help from a million barrels per day of ethanol--50% of the energy content of which comes from domestic natural gas. Electric vehicles also help, but the roughly 400,000 on the road in the US today displace the equivalent of only about 12,000 barrels per day of oil products, too small to be visible on the scale of this graph. As a result, continued fracking of shale and tight oil resources must be the linchpin of any realistic strategy to close the remaining US energy deficit within the next decade or so.

I understand that Secretary Clinton's proposed energy policies put a higher priority on addressing climate change. However, she raised the issue of energy independence in the second debate, even though her proposals are unlikely to deliver it in the foreseeable future--or preserve our present, hard-won reduced dependence on foreign energy sources. Anyone who doubts that this is a pocketbook issue should recall where oil and gasoline prices were just three years ago, before US shale added over 4 million barrels per day to global oil supplies.

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