Congress and various states are considering a fundamental restructuring and regulation of our energy policy. Any such effort should be based on facts, but legislators, unfortunately, incline to myths, such as the notion that most of our energy comes from oil.
Myth: Foreign Oil Provides Most of Our Energy
According to the U.S. Department of Energy and the Energy Information Administration, oil represents less than 40% of our energy use. A full two-thirds of that oil comes from North America, primarily Canada, not the Middle East. According to another prevailing myth, alternative energy sources will reduce the use of petroleum. Such sources may first reduce domestic production, but they will not affect production in unstable regions. Renewable technologies are subject to import and price security concerns as well.
Myth: Renewables Will Replace Conventional Energy Sources
A correlated and persistent myth is that increasing wind- and solar-generated electricity will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and thus boost our energy security. Less than 1% of our electricity is generated using petroleum, so any renewable generation will have no appreciable effect on petroleum demand. Activists and regulators believe that energy companies will not invest in clean reliable energy, so we need government programs to do so. This ignores the reality that energy companies are investing huge sums of money to develop cleaner and more reliable sources of energy.
The U.S. faces a 19% increase in energy demand over the next two decades. To meet that demand, U.S.-based oil and gas companies from 2000 to 2007 invested an estimated $121.3 billion on emerging energy technologies in the North American market. This expenditure represents 68% of the estimated total of $180 billion spent by U.S.-based companies. Renewable energy sources, however, will not soon replace most conventional energy sources. Despite considerable publicity on their behalf, renewables will remain a small fraction of our energy mix for the foreseeable future.
Myth: The U.S. Is a Disproportionately Large Polluter
From all sources, the U.S. consumes large amounts of energy. But does the U.S., as mythology has it, emit a disproportionate amount of the world’s greenhouse gases? It should be kept in mind that the U.S. produces a large portion of the world’s goods and services. Energy-related emissions of man-made greenhouse gases represent more than 80% of all anthropogenic emissions. Emissions and energy use are linked.
In 2008, goods and services produced in the U.S. accounted for 30% of all of the world’s production as measured by gross domestic product. In the same year, the U.S. share of global greenhouse gas emissions was only 19.3%. Richer countries are actually cleaner and healthier countries. It is the affluent society that does not want to be the effluent society, as various environmental analysts have noted.
Myth: Energy Efficiency Cuts Energy Use
Prevailing mythology also favors federal mandates for higher-mileage cars in the belief that this means less energy consumption. This ignores the reality that increased energy efficiency leads to increased energy use. In the case of vehicles, the fuel efficiency, as measured by Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), has led to increased driving, and — along with changing land-use patterns and increases in population — to increased consumption. Some hold that forcing drivers to use alternative fuels will help solve global warming. Such fuels, unfortunately, do not necessarily result in lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Fact: Increased Oil Production Can Have Green Results
Meanwhile, it is not a myth that expanding domestic oil production would reduce imports and even help improve the environment. Less than 1% of all oil found in the North American marine environment comes from offshore oil and gas development. According to the National Academy of Sciences, 60% of oil in the marine environment is the result of natural oil seepage through the ocean floor. In many places, it is even higher.
For example, all of the tar on the beaches of Santa Barbara is from natural oil seeps. Reducing oil reservoir pressure through extraction of petroleum will decrease oil pollution from natural seepage. New drilling technology, developed by private energy companies, has greatly reduced the risk of oil spills.
Seeking an Energy Policy Based on Reality
"It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so." That adage, attributed to Mark Twain, applies in particular to energy. Energy myths have consequences their advocates prefer to ignore. Policy based on myths could easily curtail our energy supply, drive up prices, and even increase pollution, all without an increase in energy security.
On the other hand, a common-sense energy policy based on facts stands the best chance of increasing our supply, lowering prices, trimming emissions, and boosting our overall energy security. If that is indeed their goal, policy makers, the media, and the public should reject energy myths and stick to the path of reality. That way alone leads to energy abundance and security for America.
—Thomas Tanton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of T2 & Associates. He also is the author of the report "Top Ten Energy Myths," which is available from the Pacific Research Institute, where he serves as a senior fellow in energy studies.