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Once again this fall, we're hearing presidential candidates talking of energy independence. The use of that phrase offers evidence that the candidates believe in recycling, because the promise of energy independence has been recycled from many past campaigns.
Now, the massive U.S. consumption of energy brings with it a variety of problems - turmoil in the Middle East can threaten our supply. We have to compete for energy with China. And a spike in the price of gas hits us all. So energy independence sounds smart. NPR's Tom Gjelten, however, asks a basic question - whether it is even possible.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Presidential candidates, for decades, have talked about the need for energy independence, but Mitt Romney this year has out done them all. He hits the theme in almost every speech, every debate.
MITT ROMNEY: I will set a national goal of America and North America, North American energy independence by 2020. I want to get America and North America energy independent. I'm planning on doing, which is getting us energy independent.
GJELTEN: But is this a realistic goal? The truth is, it would be impossible for any country to be totally independent where energy is concerned. Not only would it have to produce all its own oil. It would also have to be independent of the world economy, because oil is bought and sold on a global market.
All the oil produced in the world becomes part of the global oil supply, all the oil used comes out of that supply. In a sense, the oil supply is all mixed together. Energy analyst Amy Jaffe says players in the global oil market are like swimmers in a swimming pool.
AMY JAFFE: If you're in the deep end or the shallow end and somebody takes water out of the pool, it affects both swimmers equally. Same thing if we start pouring water in. You're not pouring the water in to just the deep end or just the shallow end.
GJELTEN: All one pool. With oil, all countries are affected. When the total supply of oil is down, it drives the price up. And when there's plenty of oil, when the supply goes up, the price goes down. For everyone. That's how a market works.
So, as far as the price of oil is concerned, there's no such thing as independence. Even if the U.S. were producing as much oil as it was consuming, a halt in production by Iran or Saudi Arabia would still drive up the oil price right here in the U.S.
But there is another way to think about energy independence. If a country produces as much oil as it uses, it's less vulnerable to some foreign country shutting the tap. Amy Jaffe, now at the University of California Davis, says this is the big reason governments want to reduce their dependence on foreign oil producers.
JAFFE: If someone is going to cut off your supply, because they don't like your foreign policy or they want to keep you from attacking a country, you know, this is a dangerous thing.
GJELTEN: Dangerous because you're an energy hostage. Maybe energy independence is the wrong term for what we're after. Roger Altman, deputy treasury secretary under President Clinton, prefers the term energy security.
ROGER ALTMAN: Let's get to the point where the amount we import from rogue or potentially rogue nations who might be hostile to us is down to a point where, if suddenly that supply was interrupted or shut off, we'd go right on.
GJELTEN: The United States learned the importance of energy security back in 1973, when Arab countries imposed an oil boycott on the United States to protest U.S. support for Israel in its war against Egypt and Syria. Americans were soon waiting in long lines at gas stations. And in 1974, in his State of the Union speech, President Richard Nixon set a new national goal.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need to provide our jobs, to heat our homes, and to keep our transportation moving.
GJELTEN: The fact we're still talking about this nearly 40 years later shows how hard it is to achieve energy security. But there is reason now to believe the goal may finally be within reach. Energy production in the United States is booming, thanks in large part to new techniques for extracting oil and gas from hard-to-reach deposits. Imports are going down.
And Roger Altman makes another point: Even if it's years before we have an energy supply entirely our own, new oil production throughout the western hemisphere will at least make us less vulnerable to a shutoff from the Middle East or elsewhere.
ALTMAN: It doesn't mean we'd never import another barrel of oil outside the western hemisphere. What it means is that most of our imports would come from Canada, Mexico, Brazil and so forth, and whatever happened in the Middle East would really have no severe downside to our economic stability.
GJELTEN: This is progress. It's hard to imagine how a conflict with Brazil or Mexico, much less Canada, could jeopardize the U.S. energy supply. Again, however, energy security on the supply side does not mean energy independence on the economic side. A smaller share of the oil we use in the U.S. comes from foreign sources today than was the case a decade ago. But because the world price has gone up, we're paying more at the gas pump.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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