The Fallacy of Energy Independence

In the U.S., Independence Day is upon us, a celebration of the nation’s decision to sever its ties with its colonial emperor, Great Britain. The rest, as the cliché has it, is history.

For the past almost 40 years in the U.S., the word "independence" has often been paired with the modifier "energy." But it’s time to consign that conjunction to the list of historical fantasies and fallacies that have often distorted U.S. policy and politics. Energy independence is a phrase on many lips but an intellectual construction that has no consistent meaning. It’s jive.

What is energy independence? For the Nixon administration in the 1970s, confronting the first Arab oil embargo, energy independence meant building 1,000 nuclear power plants in the U.S. It was a bad way to start with a slogan that came to dominate the rhetoric over energy and environmental issues for the next four decades. Just what building nuclear power plants on every street corner had to do with my father’s 1974 Ford LTD V-8, loaded with every option Dearborn could concoct, was never clear.

But every president since has mouthed the phrase while promoting an array of cockamamie policies ranging from turning coal into gasoline (borrowing from Nazi and South African technologies), to turning switchgrass into alcohol, to turning wind into a uptick in a sagging employment rate. During this period of sustained foolishness, the amount of oil that Americans buy from foreigners has steadily risen.

This foreign oil is, presumably, a bad thing. It is certainly easily digestible fodder for demagogues. In the 1980s, the nukes, always looking for a popular political cause on which to hook their unpopular generating technology, launched a series of newspaper ads featuring men of dark visage wearing towels around their heads. The message: Build nukes and foil the Arabs. It didn’t make any sense, but that’s politics for you. Today, of course, America gets most of its oil from those dangerous, unstable, unpredictable Canadians. That’s a bad thing?

Energy independence has always been about more than the ratio of foreign oil to domestic oil in the U.S. market. For large numbers of self-proclaimed environmentalists, energy independence means no fossil fuels, no hydro power, no nukes—only wind and sun. For the U.S. oil and gas industry, energy independence is a useful slogan to advance business interests. For labor, energy independence means high-paying U.S. jobs, regardless of the consequences for consumers. For consumers, energy independence means low-cost gasoline.

And for the Republican and Democratic parties, energy independence means, "What we can advocate that will help us win elections, and who cares what it means." This translates into political actions pegged to energy independence that, in truth, may or may not have anything to do with where America gets energy or how we use it.

The myth of energy independence, combined with the political dynamics of legislating in the U.S., produces bad policy, bad law, and bad thinking. Four years ago, for example, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The law, pushed by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a bevy of Republicans in both chambers, and signed by Republican President George W. Bush, is a laundry list of energy and environmental nostrums, pleasing to many on the surface, but with no substance. To crib from Shakespeare, it is "a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." The law’s best-known provision calls for phasing out incandescent light bulbs. How’s that for going for the capillaries?

In summary, energy independence contains no content. It is an empty rhetorical and political vessel that can carry whatever nonsense anyone wants it to hold.

So this Independence Day, let’s celebrate the birth of our new nation. And let’s forget about the delusion of energy independence.

—Kennedy Maize is MANAGING POWER’s executive editor.

SHARE this article