Truman National Security Project

Unlocking Energy Independence

1280px-Gas_prices,_July_2006,_San_Francisco,_California_01

Gas prices have been up, way up.  Standing at the pump over the past few weeks in Virginia and paying between $4 and $4.50 a gallon I couldn’t help but think back to when I started driving and gas prices were under $1.  And I’m not that old—that was mid-1990s.

Even as our nation produces more oil, gas prices have climbed continuously since the mid-1970s.  With growing economies like China constantly increasing their own demand, we can expect prices to keep rising.  Troublingly, the list of major oil producing countries reads like a who’s-who of countries that either don’t share American values or are outright hostile to the US—Russia, China , Iran, etc.

What to do?  Roughly half of the oil we consume in the US goes to passenger vehicles and light duty trucks.  Domestic transportation is the largest consumer of oil, and economical oil prices are critical to keeping our transportation infrastructure running.  This is a terribly precarious position for us:  we’re dependent on oil prices that are driven by foreign countries that don’t like us.

Some say the way to end our dependence on foreign oil is to maximize production from domestic reserves and produce as much as we consume.  There are two major problems with this apparent solution.  First, oil is a globally traded commodity.  Even if we produce as much as we consume, rising global demand will keep driving prices up (short of national price and export controls, which proponents of greater production would themselves correctly oppose).  Despite more production, our economy will remain vulnerable to price spikes caused by changes in foreign demand and supply.  Second, our ability to run military operations, especially flying aircraft and operating our Navy, depends on oil.  If we end up in a long war, say in the Middle East or Northeast Asia, global oil supplies could be compromised for years.  So long as our economy and military both depend on oil, we need to ensure reliable access to a whole lot of oil at any given time.  Strategically, we need to keep as much oil as we can untapped here at home, where we can guarantee our access to it.  Oil is not renewable, and depleting our domestic wells today, primarily for peace-time use of civilian passenger vehicles, undercuts our security tomorrow.  Fundamentally, as long as we depend on oil as a critical energy source and most of the world’s oil supply and demand is not in the US, we cannot be truly energy independent and we cannot be truly secure.

Most Americans recognize this, and when leaders call for energy independence few disagree.  I have been among those calling for energy independence and pointed to the need to increase alternative energy as a path forward.  While at the U.S. Department of Energy, I helped run what may have been the largest single deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technology in U.S. history.  Partnering with states, cities, counties and Native American tribes across the country we put over $11 billion to work on projects like installing wind turbines and solar panels, weatherizing homes and buildings, and investing in other energy efficiency and renewable energy infrastructure as part of the Recovery Act of 2009.

But today’s reality is that even if renewable energy like wind and solar could produce limitless cheap energy it wouldn’t bring energy independence when it comes to oil.  These renewable energy sources produce electricity, and while they can cut the emissions associated with coal, they can’t de-couple oil-dependent cars from foreign oil on their own.

Electrification of our vehicles is the most promising path to achieving true energy independence.  Through electrification we could cut our demand for oil by nearly half.  Enabling electric vehicles requires investing in improving battery technology and installing charging stations to connect cars to the grid.  Currently, many Americans express ‘range anxiety’ about electric vehicles: will the car battery last for a long enough distance, and can it be easily recharged?  We are seeing major strides by American companies such as Tesla and General Motors who are working to produce electric vehicles that overcome the challenges associated with vehicle range, charging access, and overall cost.  We should encourage cities to follow examples like New York, and companies to follow examples like Google in creating parking spots with charging stations for battery-powered vehicles.

Whatever you may think about renewable energy, coal, gas, nuclear or even bio-fuels, the beauty of electrifying our vehicles is that if we power cars with electricity, we can draw that energy from a broad array of sources—all domestically produced.  That means true energy independence, strategic control of our future and jobs here at home.

So the next time you’re at the pump feeling like you are paying too much, or you hear a politician talking about energy independence, ask—what are we doing to accelerate vehicle electrification to break free of foreign oil for good?

Toby Russell is a Truman Security Fellow.