U.S. energy independence is a false god upon whose altar many of our energy experts worship. We should reject this approach because it does not tackle the most pressing energy problems, is not a sustainable solution, and will not generate long-term security for the United States.
Energy independence advocates recommend that the United States pursue policies that seek to eliminate the importation of energy. In most cases, the focus is on oil imports from the Middle East and Venezuela. As a policy, this has obvious appeal. Both conservatives and liberals can agree that sending billions of dollars to nations that threaten the United States, repress human rights, squash democracy, and treat women as second-class citizens is a bad idea. Moreover, as the cost of the Iraq War in dollars, loss of international prestige, and human lives has demonstrated, dependence on foreign oil can be disastrous.
From this perspective, energy independence seems like an obvious answer. Unfortunately, the picture is not so rosy.
First, energy independence fails to address climate change, which is the most pressing energy problem our world faces today. From the perspective of our ecosystem, the problem is that there is too much fossil fuel energy left, not too little. If we continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates—and we have enough left to do so for many decades—then the resulting greenhouse gases will substantially alter the climate of the planet. In all likelihood, this will increase sea levels, make drought conditions more common, and threaten the food supply chain. Millions of lives will be lost due to famines and epidemics caused by climate change. Any proposal that focuses on energy independence to the exclusion of climate change is comparable to putting a band-aid on a broken bone.
Second, energy independence proposals generally favor the expansion of U.S. energy production (pumping more oil, mining more coal, raising more corn). However, these proposals ignore a significant way of reducing energy imports—conservation. We need to dramatically increase the attention given to reducing energy consumption and improving efficiencies in existing processes.
Third, it is not clear that energy independence actually increases national security. If the United States pursues a “we’ve got ours” attitude and forsakes the rest of the world, it will only enhance global inequalities. These inequalities will become a direct threat to national security by creating billions of disenfranchised people with little to lose. The terrorist acts of September 11th reveal to us the dangers these conditions can create. America can only become safe by reaching out and working with the rest of the world, not in opposition to it.
How should we proceed? Instead of focusing solely on energy independence, U.S. energy policy should be globally oriented. It should recognize climate change as a pressing problem and should emphasize reductions in energy consumption, rather than developing new sites of production. Only then will we be worshipping in a temple that has the potential of delivering us to the promised land.