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Ben Lieberman

Ben Lieberman

Ben Lieberman, a specialist in energy and environmental issues, is a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation's Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies. ALL POSTS

Declaring indpendence from energy independence mindset

Q: What does it mean for a nation to be energy independent? Is it realistic and if so how should that be achieved?

Energy Independence is a mixed bag -- both good and bad energy policy ideas are promoted under its banner. The bad outweighs the good, and in any event energy independence shouldn't supplant free markets as the overarching principle for sound energy policy.

Among the few good ideas spurred by the desire to achieve energy independence is expanding domestic energy production. As it is, the great majority of energy-rich federal lands and offshore areas have not been leased for oil exploration and drilling. The President has recently paid lip service to expanded access, but in reality his Department of the Interior spent its first year rolling out an unprecedented crackdown on energy leasing. Granted, increased domestic drilling will not end oil imports, but it would lead to greater supplies of oil and lower prices as well as thousands of new energy industry jobs. It is well worth pursuing for those reasons.

Among the bad energy independence ideas is the mandate for domestic renewable fuels, chiefly corn-based ethanol. Thanks to a Bush-era law, 12 billion gallons of it must be added to the gasoline supply in 2010. Ethanol raises the cost of driving - which is why proponents needed a law forcing the rest of us to use it - and the diversion of nearly a third of the corn crop from food to fuel use has raised food prices as well. The real losers are American consumers, not the Saudi oil sheikhs, Iran's regime, or Hugo Chavez.

Perhaps worst of all is costly global warming policy. Cap and trade and other measures were not selling as environmental policy -- the public has shown little concern about global warming - so they have been repackaged by supporters as energy independence policy (as well as jobs policy, hence all the green jobs rhetoric). It may make for an improved sales pitch but it doesn't add up. The main target of global warming legislation is coal, the one energy source America has in overwhelming abundance. Oil imports would not be reduced very much, but U.S. electric rates would, in the words of President Obama, "necessarily skyrocket."

Most of the energy independence agenda is a policy boomerang - it is supposed to hurt the oil rich enemies of America but ends up hurting Americans instead. There are better ways of dealing with such regimes - and certainly better ways of meeting our nation's energy needs.

By Ben Lieberman  |  April 2, 2010; 10:51 AM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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O’Keefe and Lieberman are closest to, but not right on the mark: as they say, “energy independence is an illusion” and “the energy independence agenda is a policy boomerang.” Coal, the least-cost substitute for foreign oil, is the “main target of global warming legislation,” and success would mean greater dependence on foreign oil. But, contrary to their assertions, neither greater reliance on domestic oil, nor increased fuel conservation will do much to make the economy more energy resilient and “secure.”

Regarding energy security, the problem is not import dependence, but the lack of substitutes for oil in transportation. Winston Churchill said it best: “Safety and certainty in oil lie in variety and variety alone.” So long as the U.S. and the oil-consuming nations are dependent on oil, the oil-producing nations will have us over the proverbial "barrel,” keeping world and thus U.S. oil and gasoline prices well above competitive or “free market” prices and subjecting us to oil supply shocks.

In a worldwide, fungible market, it matters neither where the oil comes from nor where it is consumed. Opening up the U.S. to additional oil drilling may cut global energy prices a few dollars a barrel or a few cents a gallon. Cutting domestic fuel consumption could actually increase world oil and gasoline prices if it prompted offsetting actions by the cartel producers. Neither effort will contribute to the diversity of oil alternatives that is necessary to satisfy Churchill’s dictum and put the oil-consuming nations in the “drivers’ seat.”

As Lieberman says, renewable fuel mandates are extremely high cost ways to address climate concerns, imposing costs on the order of ten to one hundred times that of a carbon tax. The same is true for automotive fuel efficiency standards. As Yale’s William Nordhaus points out, both policies amount to “fluff” in terms of any impact on "climate change." To deal with energy security, the better approach is to provide support for basic research in alternative fuels and fuel vehicle technologies and, in the case of biofuels, open up domestic markets to imports of Brazilian sugar cane ethanol which, as Daniel Yergin points out, could make Brazil “a major global energy supplier.”

Posted by: tomfwalton | April 5, 2010 8:04 AM
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The first thing we need to be independent of is the need to trade with countries that are unstable and don't share our values.

I am all for free trade with Canada for tar sand petroleum. There are no Canadian terrorists trying to blow up U.S. buildings or kill its citizens, much less trying to build nukes to use against us. If B.P. wants to sell us North Sea oil while Scandinavia and Germany sell us giant wind turbines, outstanding.

Let's first concentrate on being independent of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and the like. After that first objective is achieved, then we can move on to finding more and more carbon free sources, while phasing out the existing carbon sources.

A common sense plan: 1. Untangle ourselves from enemies and trade with true friends while developing every carbon and non-carbon energy source possible. 2. After independence from the crazies is achieved, phase out carbon energy sources and replace with non-carbon sources.

Posted by: tharriso | April 4, 2010 2:30 PM
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"Energy Independence" is being able to generate all of our energy needs within our controlled territory.

So we need to get away from using so much oil.

From a strategic standpoint, that's what we need to do. There is a strong argument that Germany lost WWII because it didn't have enough gas, literally. Foreign powers in control of your energy resources is always dangerous.

Furthermore, energy dependence in the U.S. can mean more environmentally friendly uses. There is basically an unlimited supply of solar power,for example, we just can't harness it.

Posted by: camasca | April 4, 2010 12:55 PM
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Ben Lieberman in WaPost: “Among the bad energy independence ideas is the mandate for domestic renewable fuels, chiefly corn-based ethanol. Thanks to a Bush-era law, 12 billion gallons of it must be added to the gasoline supply in 2010”

. Note the following world energy analysis:
remaining oil:___870bbl__640bbl__430bbl__250bbl__150bbl__80bbl__10bbl <-
biofuels:______.38 bbl__1.29bbl__5.35bbl_9.76bbl_19.8bbl_27.4bbl__41.2bbl
remaining gas:___6.2tcf___5.8tcf___4.8tcf___3.7tcf___3.1tcf__2.5tcf__1.8tcf <-
wind power:____98gwh__160gw__190gwh_300gwh_400gwh_ 590gwh_520gwh
ITER Tokamaks:_______________18gwh__37gwh_330gwh_412gwh__654gwh
EGS Geothermal:_10gwh__25gwh_55gwh_90gwh_260gwh__390gwh__590gwh
Sources: MIT and Oxford energy studies, ITER is very speculative. Sorry the data won't fit into a single newspaper column.

Inspection will disclose that by the year 2070 nearly all of the oil, gas and nuclear fuels will be consumed at the expanding current rate of use. About half of the coal supply (not shown) will also have been consumed by that time. The above suggestion that mandated renewable fuels is a bad idea is nonsense; the current consumption of gasoline will force the ‘free market’ price above $7.00 a gallon by 2020 and will destroy the American economy at a rate three times faster than expending resources to create renewable fuels. Using ethanol as the basis for renewable fuel is also inaccurate: the creation of ‘bioforests’ that have balanced energy related flora such as Jatropha bushes, Hawaiian switchgrass, sugar cane, and Popular or Spruce trees have a much higher rate of return for ‘made in USA’ fuels. Maintaining a way of life based on continued dependence on fossil fuels is not an option. The American life style will cease to exist, and there are many totalitarianist sympathizers trying to arrange that, without a massive increase in renewable fuels over the next 20 years.

Posted by: arjay1 | April 4, 2010 11:42 AM
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The crap and tax nonsense I want no part of. It's junk science, and everyone knows it.

However, if you talk energy independence, I'm willing to listen. We need to drill, baby, drill. We need to open up oil shale and tar sands regions out west. We need to drill in Anwar, off shore, and everywhere else. We also need to build wind mills and solar cells like there's no tomorrow. We also need cars that are hybrids, as well as light rail in any towns above a certain size. We also need nukes, and we need coal. We need alternatives to oil.

Posted by: A1965bigdog | April 4, 2010 10:12 AM
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citizen4truth1 |

You don't have a clue about what actually works in the real World, do you ? Why don't you list where your ideas have worked ?


Uh, the topic was energy independence . Maybe you could keep your mind on the ball .

Posted by: alanr1 | April 3, 2010 9:43 PM
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By all means, let's continue to let corporate interests determine national security policy. They've done such a good job with health care, the auto industry, investment banks, and the mortgage industry that we'd be fools not to trust them with energy policy. We don't need to vote and for that matter, who needs a government anyway, expect as a source of funding when a bit of irrational exuberance causes problems? The masters of the market will take care of us as they always have. Oh yes, they'll take care of us.

Posted by: Bob22003 | April 3, 2010 7:31 PM
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Mr Lieberman you sound like the typical conservative old fogey Republican naysayer advocating more of the same oil drilling policy along with criticizing the mitigation of global warming. I agree with you on the point of corn to ethanol being bad policy, but it was Bush II that advocated more investment in this goofy idea. (Our current president has a much higher energy IQ thank goodness.) A much better policy is to obtain more liquid fuels from algae, and to obtain ethanol (or chemical other feedstocks) from agricultural waste, along with enhanced electricity production from solar and wind other technologies. We also need more fuel efficient vehicles, homes and offices that cut down on energy consumption and investments in battery R&D to provide viable electric cars. And yes, contrary to what you imply, these activities will provide nice new jobs that beat the heck out jobs in of digging coal out of the ground (or bulldozing mountain tops). We don't need more menial jobs that require importing more foreign low-wage labor. We need more good jobs that American citizens are willing to accept in-house. I realize big oil is resistant to the rapid diversification of energy sources, but it's happening.

Posted by: citizen4truth1 | April 3, 2010 11:18 AM
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