Few people would argue that self-sufficiency is a “bad” thing. After all, there is security in only being dependent on oneself. It is not surprising then that the creation of an energy independent United States, where the nation rids itself of all foreign sources of energy, is a fairly popular political position. The possibility of stable gas prices that are immune to international supply fluctuations, as well as the tapping of the clean-burning natural gas reserves, is indeed attractive. In political rhetoric, the idea is often thrown around: President Obama has stated that “America's dependence on oil is one of the most serious threats that our nation has faced" and that it "bankrolls dictators, pays for nuclear proliferation, and funds both sides of our struggle against terrorism.” On closer inspection, however, becoming an energy independent nation may create more problems than it solves.
The United States is not alone in the world, and the actions of the United States will have far-reaching consequences. Canada is the United States’ single largest oil supplier, exporting to its southern neighbor around two million barrels a day, or over a billion barrels a year. As Canada’s largest trading partner, ending this exchange, worth around US$66 billion a year, would severely damage US-Canadian relationships. In addition to Canada, ending energy trade agreements may have adverse effects on the relationships between the United States and its other trading partners. This may especially be true in the Middle East, where regional allies are extremely important. Anti-American sentiment is easily ignited in that region, and any action that would spark a flame is dangerous.
Many Americans find reason enough to end oil imports from nations like Saudi Arabia in their less than democratic practices. As Obama said, this oil dependency is “bankrolling dictators.” However, cutting these relations may not and likely will not help improve human rights or promote democracy in that nation. Other large consumers of oil would continue to support these regimes; but if these economic relations were to be maintained, sanctions and economic pressure would provide leverage to accomplish such goals. The effectiveness of this is illustrated many times throughout history. In 2003, it was the US sanctions that led Col. Moammar Gadhafi to surrender Libya’s weapons of mass destruction. Libya under Gadhafi, a problem that had plagued the Reagan Administration, was partially resolved due to the leverage provided by oil.
US intervention and involvement in the Middle East is not likely to end with energy independence, either. The United States is not the only consumer of oil, and with other large consumers like China growing rapidly, it is feasible for China to extend its influence into the Middle East as it continues to diversify its own energy supply. Even now, as sanctions are being placed on Iran, China continues to import large amounts of oil from the nation. Politically, the United States needs to continue its role of maintaining a strong presence in every region of the globe in order to retain its role as a world superpower.
Necessary to building an energy independent United States is finding a viable long-term domestic energy source. Supporters of energy independence would point to the possibility of tapping the oil reserves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, or drilling natural gas reserves throughout the United States. On closer inspection, however, neither method is either sustainable or sufficient. In a report by the Department of Energy, it was found that drilling for oil in Alaska “is not projected to have a large impact on world oil prices” and that any potential reduction in prices would be negated by OPEC reducing exports. In addition, the report also cites numerous “uncertainties” when it comes to the Alaskan oil, including the actual amount available. Factor in the numerous environmental concerns of drilling in a pristine wildlife reserve, and the Alaskan oil fields prove to be more harmful then beneficial.
In recent years, the push to drill the natural gas reserves of the United States has gained traction, especially since new technology has made previously inaccessible pockets of gas profitable and economical to exploit. However, the new technology, known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, is subject to much controversy. This type of drilling requires an enormous amount of water and chemicals to be blasted into the rock. Many of these chemicals are already known to be toxic, such as benzene and lead, and there are also many proprietary products whose chemical composition is unknown, as the manufacturers claim trade secrecy.
Furthermore, methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas, is released through fracking, and in Pennsylvania, there are cases of household taps going “foul” or lighting on fire due to methane in the water. In fact, the case in Pennsylvania was one the first cases that state regulators attributed directly to natural gas drilling. Numerous other communities, towns, and cities have come forward, citing contamination of ground water. While it is hotly debated as to whether the actual blasting of the rock allows chemicals to seep into ground water, there are many cases of the chemical-water mixture seeping out from onsite storage at these drilling sites. After drilling, most companies store the flowback water and chemicals in open-air pits that are extremely susceptible to seepage into ground water. Even with proper precautions, these pits can still leak or overflow.
While numerous regulations are being proposed to reduce the impact of this type of drilling, companies vehemently oppose them, claiming they would make fracking unprofitable. Drilling these previously inaccessible natural gas fields is more expensive than typical natural gas. As a matter of fact, it may even prove to be even more expensive than previously predicted. The New York Times released a series of industry emails discussing how fracking may be more expensive than previously projected. As a result, this natural gas may prove to be more expensive to the consumer than advertised. To achieve the advertised result of sustainable low prices, subsidies and government tariffs on foreign natural gas may be needed. Viewed in combination with environmental concerns, natural gas may not be as attractive as it once seemed.
Energy independence is a fairly isolationist policy that can create a devastated environment and strained alliances, while not producing anything worthwhile. It is such an extreme policy that it is completely unnecessary. Similar results can be achieved by simply continuing to invest in renewable energy and diversifying the nation’s energy supply. It seems unnecessary to completely exclude foreign sources of energy: in the eyes of other nations, this looks very much like protectionism. There seem to be many benefits of energy independence, none of them are unique to it, but there are many negative costs that are indeed unique. A wonderful idea on paper, it is one that deserves much more attention and scrutiny.