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Oil and Dependence: An NPR Special Report
Can America Break Free from Foreign Oil?

From March 4-7, 2002, All Things Considered examines America's dependence on foreign oil. Can the United States increase production enough to become energy-independent? Can the nation conserve enough to make foreign oil a less-dominant influence on the U.S. economy? To a great degree, NPR reporters found that the energy future will be determined by how much Americans are willing to sacrifice.

Like no other commodity -- gold included -- oil has captured and held the human imagination. Gold is pretty, and precious, but its utility is limited. Oil's usefulness has only increased since the middle of the 19th century, when it was discovered that it could be used as fuel for kerosene lamps. Since then, "black gold" has drawn untold numbers of entrepreneurs seeking riches beyond the dreams of avarice.

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For centuries before its commodification, oil kept a mystical hold on humankind. In the 6th century B.C., people living around the Caspian Sea were inspired by "pillars of fire" -- the result of petroleum gasses escaping from gaps in the ground. Thus began the religion of Zoroastrianism.

Oil still rules life in the Caspian region -- now perhaps more than ever. Some experts say that the potential of vast amounts of oil in the region, combined with exploration and new technologies promising huge yields in other areas around the world, could help to break the market stranglehold of OPEC -- the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

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Whether new discoveries will result in anything approaching energy independence for the West, or for the United States in particular, is still far from clear. But loosening OPEC's grip on the world's oil market is a major theme of President Bush's energy policy. "To put it bluntly," Bush said during a speech in late February, "sometimes we rely upon energy sources from countries that don't particularly like us." On the other hand, as he said in a speech last May, "what people need to hear loud and clear is that we're running out of energy in America."

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Together, those two ideas form the basis of the administration's thinking on energy policy.

That policy is heavily skewed toward increasing production. "I think conservation has got to be an integral part of making sure we've got a reasonable energy policy," Bush said in the May speech. But "we can't conserve our way to energy independence, nor can we conserve our way to having enough energy available. So we've got to do both."

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Critics say Mr. Bush pays just enough lip service to conservation to get by, but that for the most part, he's squarely in the corner of the big energy producers.

Whichever effort is emphasized -- production or conservation -- the overall aim is to escape the yoke of OPEC. But is that possible?

Even if the government were to give conservation the greatest possible emphasis, the United States would still be heavily reliant on fossil fuels. And most experts believe that, barring some unforeseen major new discoveries or an unpredictable advance in oil-extraction technology, there's no way that increasing production will make the United States energy-independent. Measures such as the controversial proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration will have, at best, a marginal effect, observers say.

Previous Coverage

• Last year, NPR remembered Spindletop, the gusher that launched an industry, 100 years on.

Other Resources

The Bush administration's energy policy.

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