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The price of oil is rising worldwide, and Americans are no strangers to this phenomenon. The average price at the gas pumps has ballooned up to $4.23 per gallon nationally, according to the AAA—a significant increase from the $2.877 a year ago. After years of a debate in energy centered around the threat of climate change, it appears politicians are discussing once again the necessity of American energy independence for a prosperous, safe future for the United States.
The war in Ukraine has revealed the fragility of the energy supply of the Western world. The European Union, especially Germany, has discovered how depending on Russian gas for their domestic needs has left them exposed and unable to respond to Moscow’s aggression. The United States, although not in the same position as Germany, has also exposed its weaknesses.
Biden has made a mad dash for foreign oil as the U.S. is set to ban Russian imports. The U.S. has continued to negotiate an Iran deal that would allow Tehran to sell their oil again, Biden has repeatedly called (and get ignored) Saudi Arabian and Gulf countries leaders to increase oil production, and his administration made a 180-degree change in policy by making overtures to the Maduro regime in Caracas in exchange for oil.
The history of energy reliance of the United States
Reliance on foreign oil is not a new issue in American politics. Back in the 1970s, the U.S. was hit hard by the OPEC decision to cut oil production, making long lines and high prices at gas stations a defining image of the decade. In the mid-2000s, Americans also paid a high price at the pump due to instability in the Middle East, the economic rise of China and India, and other factors that affected the global oil market.
Energy independence, however, is not a pipe dream. After 2006, the United States started to significantly reduce its energy imports as domestic production increased by 70.68 quadrillion British Thermal units to an all-time high of 101.31 quadrillion British Thermal units in 2019, according to EIA data.
Most of this production boom came from the shell oil (fracking) and natural gas industry’s expansion. The American oil industry went from producing 10.77 quadrillions BTU to 25.47 quadrillions in 2019, American natural gas went from 19.02 quadrillion BTU to 35.26 quadrillion BTU in 2019, in other words, the U.S. oil and natural gas industry more than doubled their output in 13 years.
As a result of these remarkable trends, the U.S. was finally able to boast in 2019 and 2020 that it was producing more energy than it imported. However, the scenario has appeared to change significantly in 2021, as the Biden administration has entered into a fraught relationship with the oil companies, accusing their corporate greed of being behind the price rises, and threatening them to investigate them because of it.
As the discussion over oil, gas, renewables, and nuclear come back to the center of American policymaking, it is important to know the current state of the energy sector in American politics and what the challenges the U.S. faces in the near future are.
The present state of American energy independence
The strength of American oil production took a significant blow in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic started. American production went from 12,289 thousand barrels per day in 2019 to 11,283 thousand barrels per day in 2020, the numbers did not get better after the first year of Biden in office, as American production is currently at 11,185 thousand barrels per day. In two years, the United States suffered a 1,000 thousand barrels per day drop in its daily oil production capabilities.
There has been much criticism against the Biden Administration over its handling of the U.S. energy policy since he took office. Republican politicians have accused Biden of preferring to buy oil from foreign dictators rather than incentivizing domestic production. Democrats have countered this point, saying that it is the oil industry the one that has decided to not increase oil production in the country.
Larry Behrens is the communications director of Power The Future, a non-profit dedicated to promoting the creation of energy jobs in the United States, during an interview with El American he told us that “we’re not energy independent. We were, but now we are not (…). Since this new administration has taken over, they have brought in bureaucratic methods and executive orders that undermine our energy industry.”
Behrens also said Biden’s decisions to “cancel infrastructure in terms of the pipeline, and they have stopped permitting oil production to take place on public land.” It has created a massive problem in the oil industry, as it is unable to recover production as fast as it should.
Dan Bosch, the director of regulatory policy of the American Action Forum, said to El American, “the oil industry is in a bit of a tough spot. Production dipped as a result of reduced demand due to the pandemic, and some production sites closed. Add in the Biden Administration’s view that oil should be an energy source of the past, and many workers in the industry left.”
While it is true that factors beyond Biden’s direct control are having a very important effect on the output of the oil industry, Bosch said that at the same time “the Biden Administration aims to issue costly regulations to make oil production economically less viable to give a boost to energy sources,” which has hampered production potential at home as well.
Energy independence and foreign affairs
The oil supply woes are not exclusive to America, global oil prices are up across the world and the war in Ukraine has certainly shocked the markets as countries are considering banning Russian oil and gas. The Biden White House has tried to shift the blame on Putin for the high gas prices, dubbing it the “Putin Price hike.”
Behrens argued that the war in Ukraine is not an excuse for the administration as “the United States has more than enough to be able to produce to survive on its own and to give it some flexibility in the geopolitical situations.” He, like many others, questioned Biden’s decision to open conversations with Venezuela’s Maduro, saying “it makes no sense to go to other regimes and give them money because they will do things that are against our interest as well.”
A similar remark was made by Bosch, who argued that “ramping up domestic production would make a lot more sense. One major lesson of the current situation with Russia and Ukraine, as Europe is discovering, is that relying on despotic regimes for energy props up those regimes and gives them a sense of security and legitimacy.”
Besides fueling up the production of American oil, Behrens also argued in favor of looking up to allied countries like Colombia as partners for energy sources, saying that it “in terms of infrastructure, in terms of contracts, in terms of just your transportation, it would be easier for the long term of the United States.”
This is not a sentiment that is only shared by conservative politicians or some experts, but Democrat Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has also signaled his support for energy independence, saying in an interview on Morning Joe that “Putin has weaponized energy. He used it against Europe. (…) They’re paying the price because of their dependency on dirty Russian oil and natural gas. The least we can do is maintain our energy independence and be able to backfill every way possible. We can with cleaner American energy.”
The future of American energy policy
Energy policy will be a crucial part of policymaking in Washington D.C. in the incoming years, as the dual fears of climate change and foreign crises will put to the test the ability of Congress to decide which sources of energy to promote in order to ensure American energy needs are met.
What does the future of American energy policy look like, then? Well, it depends on who you ask.
Most Democrats have argued for a quicker abandonment of fossil fuels as a crucial step towards a carbon-neutral economy, and have made a big push for renewable energy. Republicans, have instead advocated for a renewed effort toward oil production, and the last two administrations (Trump and Biden) have also made some moves in favor of nuclear energy as a crucial step toward nuclear energy in the future.
Behrens argues that instead of relying exclusively on green energy policies and projects is a fool’s errand. He says that measures like electric cars are not a good solution as our saying that Gavin Newsom “had to tell those who own electric vehicles, please do not plug them in, because our grid cannot handle that much electricity and still keep the lights on.” America cannot rely solely on green energy, he said, “because the fact of the battery is wind and solar are intermittent and unreliable forms of energy.”
Bosch had a similar opinion, saying that “the U.S. obviously needs to be developing any viable source of cleaner energy, including renewables and nuclear (…) But it is clear that these aren’t coming online at the rate, or cost, that Americans need. The administration needs to be willing to continue to emphasize oil (and natural gas) as energy sources while that transition continues.”
He also made a case for nuclear energy saying that nuclear “is a logical step in any zero-emission energy in the future” and that the administration should work hard “at reducing the regulatory burden on nuclear energy to help bring down costs and make it more economically competitive with other sources.”
Whether is nuclear, oil, gas, or renewables, the recent crisis in global oil production caused in part by Putin’s war on Ukraine makes something extremely clear: American energy independence must be a cornerstone for the national and economic stability of the country in the turbulent years ahead.