ENERGY: A SPECIAL SECTION; Can We
Do Without The Mideast?
By CLIFFORD KRAUSS
IMAGINE a foreign policy version of the movie ''Groundhog Day,'' with Bill Murray playing the
president of the United States. The alarm clock rings. Political mayhem is again shaking the
Middle East, crude oil and gasoline prices are climbing, and an economic recovery is under
President Nixon woke up to the same alarm during the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo and declared
Project Independence to end the country's dependency on imported oil. President Carter, during
the Iranian revolution, called an effort to reduce dependency on foreign oil ''the moral equivalent
of war.'' President George W. Bush called oil an addiction.
On Wednesday, in a nationally televised address, President Obama said, ''We cannot keep going
from shock when gas prices go up to trance when gas prices go back down. We can't rush to
propose action when prices are high, then push the snooze button when they go down again.''
So, with Libyan and other North African and Middle Eastern oil fields jeopardized by political
upheaval and Japan's nuclear power disaster turning the energy world on its head, the alarm is
ringing again. As gasoline prices rise and even the stability of Saudi Arabia is suddenly in
question, energy independence is taking on new urgency.
The path to that independence -- or at least an end to dependence on the Mideast -- could well be
dirty, expensive and politically explosive.
It would require transformational technology for electric cars and biofuels. But experts say that,
at least in theory, it is a goal that is now in sight, especially with Canada and other friendly
hemispheric partners now able to replace much of the oil imported from less friendly or stable
''For the first time since the first oil shock, I see us decreasing our dependency on imported oil,''
Steven Chu, the energy secretary, said in an interview. Noting that the country now imports half
its oil, he added: ''Can we be at half that in 20 years? Yeah, there is a real possibility of that.''
But the change will not come easily.
''Reducing America's liquid fuel imports by midcentury to under 20 percent is possible, but it
depends on what the political system is willing to do, what the public is willing to accept in
terms of higher prices and how the technology breaks for you,'' said John M. Deutch, a former
director of the Central Intelligence Agency and a former under secretary of energy. ''The first
thing you do is pop the price of gasoline up quite a bit, and that reduces consumption.''
Some analysts said that even faster change was possible, but that could mean big government
subsidies and taxes to build more high-speed rail lines, to encourage truck and bus fleets to
switch to natural gas and to push the development of wind, solar and geothermal energy. The
storage capacity of car batteries would have to improve, and plentiful, low-cost biofuels from
plant waste or algae would have to come to market. In the short term, more domestic drilling,
including offshore and perhaps in the Alaskan Arctic, would be needed, whatever environmental
damage it might bring. Higher gasoline prices are likely, from market forces or taxes or both.
In other words, to reduce oil imports by nearly half to 1982 levels -- they amounted to 28 percent
of total consumption then -- might enrage conservatives, liberals, environmentalists and climate-
change skeptics alike.
But some of the changes have already been set in motion.
AMY Myers Jaffe, associate director of the Rice University Energy Program, and other Rice
researchers expect a drop of 4.3 million barrels a day in the use of oil by 2025 simply through
improved fuel efficiency of vehicles mandated by Congress. That equals more than a third of
An additional 2.5 million barrels a day could be eliminated by 2050 with policies to make
electric cars 20 percent of the American car fleet, the Rice researchers say. Drilling for more oil
domestically would reduce dependency even faster.
''We could be reaching a tipping point,'' Ms Jaffe said. ''Our entire oil profile could change.''
Oil imports now subtract more than a $1 billion a day from the United States balance of trade.
Oil industry executives say that every additional million barrels of domestic oil produced
generates a million new jobs and $30 billion in economic activity. And domestic production
would reduce the flow of petrodollars that now help finance regimes unfriendly to the United
States in places like Venezuela.
Because the United States has bountiful supplies of coal, natural gas and nuclear energy, as well
as growing amounts of energy from renewable sources, the nation is already independent when it
comes to the electrical power that heats and cools its homes and buildings and runs its factories.
With the glut in natural gas that has developed in the last five years, there is the potential to have
enough to power vehicles directly or through eventual electrification of the transportation fleet.
Electrical capacity could also be developed with a federal effort to extend transmission lines to
link wind and solar power sources with large population centers. In the aftermath of the Japanese
disaster, nuclear power will need to be put on safer footing and expanded. Future improvements
in the energy efficiency of buildings could reduce the fuel they consume.
The problem the nation faces is easy to define: it's the 19 million barrels of oil a day used by its
cars, trucks and aircraft. Though the United States remains one of the largest oil producers in the
world, it has been an importer since the late 1940s, with imports rising and domestic production
declining fairly steadily year after year over the last quarter-century, until recently.
But a shift in the last couple of years has received little attention. Oil imports have edged lower
and domestic output has increased, enough so that the United States is no longer importing 60
percent of its oil, as it was the last time oil prices were spiking four years ago.
''We're 80 percent energy-independent to begin with, so we're pretty far along,'' said Daniel
Yergin, the oil historian. ''Our oil imports are down to 50 percent, and there has been a
rebalancing of where we import oil from.''
Since 2007, the United States has decreased its oil imports from nations of the Organization of
the Petroleum Exporting Countries by more than a million barrels a day (including 400,000
barrels less from Saudi Arabia and 300,000 less from Venezuela), while decreasing its imports
from non-OPEC countries by half that much, according to the Energy Department.
During the 1970s, synthetic fuel from oil sands was little more than an experiment. Now more
than 20 percent of United States oil imports come from Canada, and half of that from oil sands.
That could expand considerably if the Obama administration approves the extension of the
Keystone pipeline to Gulf of Mexico refineries, as expected.
Synthetic oil from Canadian oil sands is dirtier to produce than most conventional crude, but it
will be produced; if the United States does not import that oil, China will. Another 10 percent of
American imports comes from Mexico, and increasing amounts from Colombia and Brazil, two
dependable allies. The shifting sands of oil could be seen when President Obama did not cancel
his recent trip to Brazil even as allied air and naval forces went on the attack in Libya.
The potentially unstable or otherwise unreliable countries of the Persian Gulf and North Africa,
Venezuela and perhaps Nigeria, supply a combined total of about five million barrels a day --
about a quarter of United States consumption. That is the amount that ought to be the target.
There are several ways to replace those barrels, some of which have already been tried, with
some success, in the United States and other countries. A decade of progress stretching from the
early 1970s through the early 1980s is now mostly forgotten, but high oil prices drove two
Republican and one Democratic administration to lower highway speeds to 55 miles an hour,
divert federal funds from highways to mass transit, restrict the use of oil by utilities and oblige
automakers to improve their efficiency standards.
Along with the conservation efforts, the country completed the Trans-Alaska pipeline system to
bring Alaskan oil to the lower 48 states and created a Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Research and
development of shale oil, geothermal, nuclear and solar energy were all increased with federal
The efforts of the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations slashed oil imports in half from 1977
Because the country has become more dependent on oil imports today, it is easy to dismiss those
efforts of a generation ago as a failure, but that would be the wrong lesson to draw.
Some advances were permanent: oil had been responsible for 15 percent of the nation's electrical
generation in 1975, consuming 1.4 million barrels a day, but now is only a trivial power source.
The 1975 energy act obliged auto companies to double efficiency to 27.5 miles a gallon by 1985,
saving hundreds of millions of barrels of imports over the years.
Subsequent administrations discarded many of the effective policies when oil prices collapsed
and remained low through much of the 1980s and 1990s, while private investment in developing
oil and unconventional fuel sources also withered. Federal budgets for research on conservation
and alternative fuels were slashed. Automobile efficiency standards remained unchanged. Oil
imports rocketed from 27 percent of United States oil consumption in 1985 to 60 percent in two
decades since then.
Yet the same tools that worked 30 years ago -- from producing more oil in Alaska to increasing
biofuel production to creating more fuel-efficient cars -- exist today.
''It's become chic to say we can do nothing to solve this problem, but past success can give us
hope for the future,'' said Jay Hakes, director of the Carter Library and former director of the
federal government's Energy Information Agency. ''We can get to energy independence, and we
have begun moving in that direction already in the last three or four years.''
The high oil prices in recent years have helped the effort, and there is some evidence that
gasoline usage in the United States may have peaked in 2007. With cars and trucks becoming
more efficient and ethanol use expanding, American drivers will probably use less oil in the
future despite predicted increases in population.
The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, the most serious energy legislation in a
generation, went a long way toward reaching those goals. It raised auto and light truck efficiency
requirements to 35 miles a gallon by 2020, from the current 27.5. It obliged producers of
transportation fuels to gradually increase blending of biofuels into gasoline to replace oil, from
nine billion gallons a year in 2008 to 36 billion gallons in 2022, a goal that will require the
production of advanced biofuels in commercial quantities. Pilot-scale plants are working on
producing various kinds of advanced cellulosic ethanol, butanol and other biofuels made out of
plant and other wastes.
The results could be revolutionary, as the American vehicle fleet is replaced over the next 15
years. Several car companies are working on improvements to the internal combustion engine
that could yield 50 miles to the gallon, or more, in a few years.
Genetically modified crops promise to improve yields for ethanol. Every major auto
manufacturer has a hybrid or plug-in electric car planned for the marketplace, and utilities and
other companies are working on building a charge-up infrastructure in cities across the country.
Battery prices are coming down significantly.
A recent study by the consulting firm Accenture estimated that it would be possible to replace 30
percent of gasoline demand by 2030 by adopting a fuel-efficiency standard of 40 miles a gallon
over the next 20 years and gradually doubling the current blending of biofuels to 30 billion
gallons by 2030.
Research breakthroughs are occurring across a wide range of alternative fuels and vehicles, but
barriers to reaching commercial scale remain. Competitiveness with oil-based technologies is not
guaranteed unless there is some government intervention, like subsidies or taxes on carbon.
''We are on the trajectory to reduce our imports substantially, but it's not going to be an easy
journey,'' said Melissa Stark, partner and senior energy analyst at Accenture, ''because the new
technologies will have to compete with our very efficient oil industry. There has to be a pathway
In the meantime, natural gas has the greatest promise to replace diesel fuel in trucks. Clean
Energy Fuels, a natural gas distributor, estimates that the country's eight million trucks use up to
40 billion gallons of diesel a year. The company figures it would take five trillion cubic feet of
gas a year to replace that amount of diesel, which alone would displace 2.3 million barrels of oil
With natural gas reserves of 284 trillion cubic feet (and with estimates rising), the country would
have little trouble producing the gas, presuming that the oil and gas industry can answer growing
environmental concerns surrounding their hydraulic fracturing practices.
The government would also need to provide billions of dollars of incentives for truck companies
to convert their trucks and for filling stations to install the fueling equipment.
A conversion may be beginning. United Parcel Service recently announced that it would add 48
trucks fueled on liquid natural gas to its fleet and would add more once the fueling infrastructure
was in place. It took $5.5 million in government grants for the project, and more research is
needed to develop pump technology and onboard storage tanks to prevent methane escapes.
Then, of course, there is the ''drill baby drill'' approach -- not the best, many environmentalists
would argue, to protect the environment and reduce climate change but one that is already
working to decrease imports.
In 2009, the United States produced more oil than the year before for the first since 1985 because
of the combined increase in production from deepwater Gulf of Mexico production and drilling
in a giant shale field in North Dakota.
Domestic production again rose in 2010, by 3 percent, while imports have fallen slowly but
steadily since 2006. Edward Westlake, a Credit Suisse managing director for energy research,
calculates that the United States will be producing an additional 2.4 million barrels of oil and
other liquid fuels by 2016, on top of the 8.6 million barrels a day produced in 2010, even with a
natural decline in existing domestic oil fields.
At the same time he forecasts a small increase in demand for transportation fuels. ''Bottom line,
we're becoming more independent but more work needs to be done,'' he said. The blowout on a
BP well in the Gulf of Mexico last year that left 11 workers dead and spilled millions of barrels
of crude will undoubtedly slow development offshore for at least a few years, and was a setback
to energy independence.
Before the spill, deepwater production in the Gulf had climbed in only a decade from a trickle to
1.2 million barrels a day, and it was expected to climb an additional 400,000 barrels a day by
2012. But the accident will surely slow drilling for several more years at least.
But offshore drilling will not be off the table forever, and oil executives believe many years of
discoveries will be made once approvals start up again. As for the eastern Gulf and Atlantic coast
currently closed to exploratory drilling, the federal government estimates they contain 3.8 billion
barrels of oil, roughly comparable to Norway's reserves.
Many geologists say those estimates are based on incomplete testing and seismic data that is
decades old. They note that the geology of the eastern gulf is similar to coastal central and
southern Mexico, where some of the hemisphere's most productive oil fields lie. Meanwhile,
parts of the Atlantic coast were connected approximately 200 million years ago to parts of the
coast of West Africa like Guinea and Mauritania, where large oil fields have been found.
Oil production in Alaska, which has been in decline for decades, could be doubled in the
meantime from its current yield of 680,000 barrels a day by opening up the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge and Arctic waters that are currently closed to drilling. The refuge has 10.4
billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to the federal government, and by some estimates,
Alaska's Arctic waters, now also off limits, hold 50 percent more than that.
There are compelling environmental reasons not to drill more in the Alaskan Arctic, even though
low production from the aging North Slope Fields means the Trans Alaska pipeline is running at
only a third of its capacity, increasing the likelihood that water will freeze in the pipes and cause
corrosion and leaks on the tundra. But approving more drilling in Alaska will be a tough political
More relevant is the little-known new drilling for oil in shale fields made possible by the same
hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques that have increased natural gas
Production from the Bakken field in North Dakota alone has risen to more than 350,000 barrels a
day this year, and experts expect that will reach 800,000 barrels a day in five to seven years.
Shale fields in Texas, Colorado, Wyoming and California, barely explored, have vast potential.
Pete Stark, vice president for industry relations at IHS Cera, estimates that as much as 1.5
million barrels a day may be produced by 2020 from the shale fields, which have in excess 20
billion barrels of recoverable oil -- decades of productive capacity.
''That's a million barrels of oil a day that nobody has had in their forecasts,'' Mr. Stark said. ''This
could be the leading edge of a game changer that will provide a cushion for energy security at a
time when traditional OPEC supplies are at risk.''
Some day, maybe Bill Murray won't have to wake up again, grumpy and dissatisfied. But right
now, that alarm clock is ringing.