Rethinking “Energy Independence”

Pietro S. Nivola
Pietro Nivola
Pietro S. Nivola Former Brookings Expert

December 29, 2008

Executive Summary

Some of us are old enough to remember Richard M. Nixon proclaiming that “our national goal” should be “to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign sources.” All of us, old and young, ought to be startled that, thirty-five years later, it remains hard to find a leading American politician that does not champion more or less the same strange notion as Nixon’s. Regrettably, that included two of the nation’s most sensible political leaders, President-elect Barack Obama and Senator John McCain. Both of their campaigns repeatedly lamented the nation’s “dependency” on foreign oil.

One purpose of political campaigns is to win elections, but another is to educate and prepare the public for the policy challenges to be faced. The 2008 presidential election was uplifting in many respects, but alas, its treatment of the energy issue, was not among them. For all the persistent political fascination with “energy independence,” the reasoning behind it is flawed. Policymakers ought to recognize that reality and start leveling with the voters about it.

The aim of this essay is to encourage a long-overdue change in the terms of what has otherwise become a repetitious and largely sterile debate.

Supporting Materials:
Figure 1: Crude Oil Prices in the U.S. and U.K. »
Figure 2: Price of Oil and Changes in US Real GDP »
Figure 3: U.S. Imports by Country of Origin, Total Crude Oil and Products, 2007 »
Figure 4: Cost of Production for Transportation Fuels, 2005 »