The myth of U.S. energy independence

While some people demonize petroleum as an inefficient polluter, it is the country’s extreme daily diet of the product which is the real problem, writes guest columnist Rebecca Tallent.

November 1, 2022 4:10 am
man refuels at a gas station

A man refuels at a gas station on May 12, 2021, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Politicians talk about energy independence and the current pain at the pump. But what they and most Americans don’t understand is the U.S. is not energy independent and has not been so since 1953.

It has been 69 years since the U.S. has produced enough petroleum to meet the daily domestic demand of now 18.684 million barrels per day, according to PolitiFact, a division of the Poynter Institute. 

The U.S. Energy Information Administration said in 2021 the average crude oil production in the U.S. was 11 million barrels per day. The same year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said the U.S. exported 2.96 million barrels per day, or 35 percent of all U.S. petroleum production. The administration said in 2021 America imported 6.11 million barrels per day from 173 countries, including the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. The top five countries exporting petroleum to the U.S. last year were Canada, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Columbia. This year is similar.

As a former petroleum reporter in Oklahoma, I know much of the country’s oil fields have been producing as long as 100 years, meaning they are now depleted down to where the oil industry is often using second and third tier recovery methods, including fracking, which are not always cost effective. The current price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil (the domestic industry’s benchmark) is $83.97 per barrel, the cost to produce each barrel is about half that price. This does not include the cost of refining the crude oil into useable product.

For those of us old enough to remember the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-74, the recent move by OPEC to cut production by 2 million barrels per day to push up prices (currently $92.48 per barrel) brings back memories of long gas lines and recession. As a reminder, OPEC imposed the sanctions against the U.S. in retaliation for supporting the Israeli military in the 1973 Yom Kippur War to gain leverage in post-war negotiations. 

For Americans now just starting to climb out of troubled economic waters, this new production cut is a harbinger of a prolonged recession and begs the question of OPEC trying to politically interfere with the upcoming midterm elections.

Adding in the war in the Ukraine and the push to economically punish Russia, America’s pipeline for crude oil is significantly shortened.

Many people will immediately call on the U.S. to expand drilling operations. Realistically, this won’t help since so many of the oilfields are depleting, plus it takes time and money to ramp up new production. Offshore drilling is financially riskier, 15 to 20 times more expensive, plus there are the environmental concerns of well blowouts in the water. No one wants another 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon incident again. 

In addition, most of the country’s refineries are old and needing updates, further cutting the ability to process the crude oil in a cost acceptable to the American consumer.

The real solution is unpopular: Americans should find ways to curb their energy consumption. This can be by several methods, including using green energy (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, etc.) for electricity rather than natural gas or coal. The petroleum cord cannot be completely cut – that would be impossible given the independent lifestyle of most Americans, but electric and/or more fuel-efficient cars, public transportation (when available), carpools and other means of transportation should be encouraged. 

Other alternatives for vehicles include biofuels/biodiesel (some pioneered at the University of Idaho), ethanol, hydrogen, propane and fuel cells. 

While some people demonize petroleum as an inefficient polluter, it is the country’s extreme daily diet of the product which is the real problem. Petroleum and fossil fuels in general are finite products, it takes millions of years to develop them in the ground, but it only takes a day to consume 784.7 million gallons in this country alone. 

Could America become energy independent again? Maybe, but it won’t be the petroleum-based type of energy production of 1953. For America to become energy independent once more will take existing alternative forms of energy plus newer forms found by scientists and enterprising inventors. 

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Rebecca Tallent
Rebecca Tallent

An award winning journalist and public relations professional, Rebecca "Becky" Tallent was a journalism faculty member at the University of Idaho for 13 years before her retirement in 2019. Tallent earned her BA and M.Ed. degrees in journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma and her Educational Doctorate in Mass Communications from Oklahoma State University. She is of Cherokee descent and is a member of the Native American Journalists Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. She and her husband, Roger Saunders, live in Moscow, Idaho, with their two cats.