Politicians throw the term “energy independence” around constantly, but this talking point is useless in both theory and practice. Fossil fuel independence brings us neither price stability nor energy reliability, and we need a different policy for the future.
As the midterm elections heat up and gas prices rise again, we are sure to see the return of a common talking point: the United States must achieve energy independence.
Many politicians and pundits, especially in the GOP, have recently highlighted the need for energy independence and the Biden administration’s supposed wrecking of it. They claim that Democratic red tape ruined American domestic energy production and consequently, Congress should pass legislation that would deregulate and fastrack every single fossil fuel project in America. That would, allegedly, return the United States to energy independence and solve our energy problems.
There’s just one problem: The United States is already energy independent, and it hasn’t helped one bit.
According to the Energy Information Administration, America has remained a net energy exporter and continues to export more petroleum products than it imports. Under Biden, domestic oil production has only gone up, and natural gas production has reached an all-time high. Despite this, energy prices are higher than ever in recent memory, and this has been a major driver of overall inflation.
So how can America be an energy independent country and still suffer a sharp rise in energy prices? The answer is that the entire concept of energy independence is ludicrous. Having the ability to produce enough energy to power your country domestically means nothing when energy commodities are traded globally. As long as products like oil and gas are traded internationally, Americans will continue to pay the prices set in a worldwide market — even if some politicians claim we are energy independent. This continued dependence on global markets is why factors like the war in Ukraine and OPEC's price gouging continue to harm energy prices at home. Having more domestic production is simply meaningless when we live in a globalized economy.
Trying to seal off the US into an autarkic energy market — where there is no international trade and everything produced is used at home — would not work either. Much of America’s domestic energy production is through fracking, which is an expensive way to produce energy whose high price is only brought down by cheaper production overseas. Cutting off imports makes us rely on an energy supply that is permanently pricey. Another problem domestically is our shrinking refinery capacity, which is critical to turn crude fossil fuels into usable products like gasoline. During the pandemic, falling oil prices forced some refineries out of business, and others have been destroyed through accidents or hurricane damage. Big oil and gas companies have refused to invest in more infrastructure because high prices benefit their bottom line, so the refinery shortage is likely to remain for a long time. In short, trying to achieve an actual independence in fossil fuels would leave us worse off than before: stuck with permanently high prices and at mercy of big oil.
That is what much of the current propaganda about energy independence is all about — giving more power to oil and gas companies. Politicians, especially conservatives who receive tens of millions in fossil fuel contributions, want to seize on the current energy crisis to deregulate these corporations and give the shareholders more profits. Prices would stay high and we would deal with even more toxic pollution and carbon emissions. So long as we rely on fossil fuels, we have to cede power to price fixers and geopolitical crises overseas or surrender to the power of big oil at home.
Energy independence is a scam. It means very little to the average American, protects us from nothing, and is used as misdirection to empower private corporations. When politicians can’t even tell the truth that we are “independent” right now, we know it has to be political theater. In the short-term, high energy prices should be addressed through price subsidies and cash assistance to families, such as the Child Tax Credit or Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. In the long-term, the only energy independence that matters is one that actually frees us from global volatility, and that is independence through renewables and nuclear. Production of wind and solar energy require no international trade, and the price will never spike due to a foreign conflict or cartel. Although nuclear energy does require imports, they are from friendlier countries (and they’re not organized into a price-fixing entity like OPEC) and fuel rods are replaced on a much-less frequent basis (so short-term fluctuations are moot). True independence will also require strong regulation of these utilities so that no private company can hold this basic necessity of life over our heads. Any talking head that prescribes unrestricted fossil fuel production as a solution for our “independence” is simply trying to sell you something.
Katharine Sciackitano is a fourth-year Economics major in the College of Arts and Sciences. They are the Editor-In-Chief for the American Agora.