Business as Usual: Hooked on Foreign Oil

Only 40 mpg by 2035? Current policy ensures long-term oil imports.
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Nearly every U.S. president, Republican or Democrat, since Richard Nixon has called on the United States to kick its addiction to foreign oil.

"In the last third of this century," Nixon said in 1973, "our independence will depend on maintaining and achieving self-sufficiency in energy."

In 1975, President Gerald Ford said the nation needed a "massive program ... to increase energy supply, to cut demand, and provide new standby emergency programs to achieve the independence we want by 1985."

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter declared, "The generation-long growth in our dependence on foreign oil will be stopped dead in its tracks right now and then reversed as we move through the 1980s. ..."

It was not to be. Net oil imports in the U.S. rose for another generation until 2005, when they peaked at 12.6 million barrels per day, or 61 percent of the country's total oil consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy.

"America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world," said President George W. Bush, stating the obvious in his 2006 State of the Union address. "The best way to break this addiction is through technology."

In 2008, the U.S was still importing a net 11 million barrels of oil per day, or 59 percent of all the oil consumed in the U.S.

The rhetoric has been tough all along, citing national security, the trade gap, pollution and greenhouse gases. What's been missing, seemingly, is the will to fight for energy independence.

The energy administration's forecast to 2035, published last month, provides a business-as-usual glimpse of what the country can expect if it doesn't step up the pace of change. With respect to oil, it shows that the laws, regulations and standards currently on the books would do little to reduce, much less end, America's addiction to foreign imports for another generation.

Absent any policies aimed at solving the problem, the report shows, net U.S. imports of oil would likely total 9.7 million barrels per day in 2035, or 51 percent of the country's total oil consumption.

Under a status quo scenario, total U.S. consumption of oil, foreign and domestic, remains near its present level through 2035. Oil accounts for a third of U.S. energy consumption by 2035, down only slightly from 37 percent in 2008, the forecast shows. Biomass fuels from crop residues, grasses, wood waste, vegetable oils, manure and algae — including renewable, less-polluting alternatives to gasoline — would account for only 6 percent of total U.S. energy consumption in 2035.

A policy-neutral 'what if?'
The energy administration report, called the Annual Energy Outlook 2010 Early Release, is the preview of a full forecast that will be made public in March. It shows that existing laws and policies such as the Clean Energy Act of 2007, Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008, and American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009, including $61 billion for green energy technology, would only slightly reduce the country's use of fossil fuels over the next 25 years.

In 2008, the report shows, fossil fuels made up 84 percent of total energy consumption in the U.S. By 2035, with no new legislation, 78 percent of total energy consumption is projected to come from fossil fuels. Emissions of energy-related carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, would increase by nearly 9 percent.

The forecast assumes the U.S. population will grow by 28 percent by 2035, and that the economy will grow about 2.5 percent per year.

The report does not take into account six different climate bills currently in the House and Senate. It does not reflect the Obama administration's letter last week to the United Nations, on the heels of the Copenhagen climate accord, pledging that America will reduce its global warming pollution by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, 42 percent by 2030 and 83 percent by 2050.

The forecast does include the impacts of proposed fuel economy standards that have not yet been approved by Congress — an average 35.5 miles per gallon for light-duty cars and trucks by 2016. These vehicles currently account for more than half of U.S. oil consumption, a scenario that will not change for the next 25 years, absent stricter standards, the forecast says.

President Obama announced the 2016 standards shortly after taking office last year. He sounded a lot like his predecessors, resolving once and for all to wean the U.S. off imported oil.

"Year after year, decade after decade, we've chosen delay over decisive action," he said. "... Now America has arrived at a crossroads. Embedded in American soil and the wind and the sun, we have the resources to change. ... It will be the policy of my administration to reverse our dependence on foreign oil. ..."

Yet absent any tougher rules, Americans won't be getting more than 40 miles per gallon, on average, by 2035, the forecast shows. There would be only a 5-miles-per-gallon improvement in efficiency between 2016 and 2035. European cars already average roughly 40 miles per gallon. China is aiming for at least 42 miles per gallon — by 2015.

No one ever said energy independence would be easy: Thirty years ago, Carter likened it to the "moral equivalent of war."

Can Obama rally the troops and muster an all-out attack?

"You know we can do it," Carter said in 1979, with an optimism that now seems poignant. "... I have seen the strength of America in the inexhaustible resources of our people. In the days to come, let us renew that strength in the struggle for an energy secure nation."

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