THE BLOG

The Media Blunder of the Month -- Energy Independence, so NOT

11/16/2012 07:10 pm ET | Updated Jan 16, 2013
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

America's oil addiction and oil dependence are not a thing of the past -- whatever the media may have yipped at each other's heels to tell you this week. In fact, we are on the verge of committing the world to a future of ever more expensive oil and ever larger U.S. economic problems for paying for oil imports -- not to mention the devastating impact this oil dependence has on the climate, air and water, and the economies of Asia and Africa.

But here are the headlines:

U.S. To Become Top Oil Producer -- IEA CNN Money
The U.S. May Become Energy Independent After All -- Washington Post
U.S. Seems Destined for Energy Independent -- Oregon Live
U.S. Can Become the World's Largest Oil Producer -- The Guardian

Behind this optimistic hype is the annual 2012 World Energy Outlook produced by the International Energy Agency (IEA). This year's forecast, in reality, is very grim. It projects that global oil prices will rise, in real terms, from their present, economy-wrecking $100 level to either $125 or $145 depending on how much additional investment consuming nations make in efficiency. It does foresee a brief spurt of U.S. oil production from about 10 mbd to about 11 mbd in 2020, but it slumps down to about 9 by 2035. Saudi production exceeds ours again after 2020, and more of the world's oil must come from OPEC than it does today, once the modest and temporary U.S. bubble passes.

The rosy media gushing about "energy independence" comes from IEA's projection that U.S. investments in energy efficiency and biofuels will cause our consumption oil to drop gradually from our present 19 mbd to about 12.6 mbd. Half this decline results from efficiency, and half from electrification and biofuels. (These are not guaranteed reductions, but are certainly possible.)

These are projections, and often prove far from the mark. But assume they come true -- how good is this news for the American economy, the climate and the environment?

The answer is this news is about as bad as it could be -- if we let it come true. Even with fairly dramatic U.S. investments in efficiency and alternative fuels, IEA's numbers would mean that over the next quarter century the U.S. would transfer $6.5 trillion (one third of our current national debt) of its wealth to oil exporting nations; for the next decade our oil imports bill would be bigger than it has been for the past decade; development prospects in Asia and Africa would be devastated by their inability to pay for basic transportation services; and, as IEA itself made as its major point, hopes of climate progress would be dashed.

But in the Washington Post Robert Samuelson writes, "For starters, the long-standing U.S. trade deficit will narrow and might disappear. In 2011, oil imports represented two-thirds of the deficit in goods." Well, by 2035 the oil imports deficit would be smaller -- only $170 billion a year, instead of $340 billion. That's not trivial -- but none of it results from increased domestic oil -- U.S. oil production is actually down in 2035. No, any decline in the oil imports bill for the U.S. over the next quarter of a century is entirely the result of investments we make in efficiency, electrification and alternative fuels. But by doing too little of this, as the IEA expects, we bankrupt our climate, the world and ourselves. Remember, under this scenario, our oil imports bill actually goes up for the next decade.

Instead, we ought to get real and create a global partnership of all the major oil importers to reduce our demand for oil -- if the world used only a little less oil, about 6 percent less, it could cut the price of oil in half, and keep high carbon crudes like Canada's tar sands in the ground -- it's paying for that last bit of extreme crude which drives the price of all oil up through the roof. And the sooner we start deploying electric vehicles and more efficient trucks, and lots of them, all over the world, the less damage we will do the climate and the environment on our way to an oil free future.

The oil industry is chortling as they read the delusional coverage of the IEA's 2012 report -- and the media should be red-faced. The rest of us should get on with the biggest economic and environmental opportunity we have ever been handed -- to protect the environment and slash the cost of imported oil by innovating, not drilling, our way out of oil dependence.

What we should not do is be lulled into thinking that our oil dependence crisis has somehow been resolved by some temporary and modest good news on the domestic oil production front. It's neither big enough nor sustainable enough to change the big picture.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."

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