Energy Independence Is a Charade

It’s not hard to get behind the idea of energy independence. Most of us know that we are in a terrible fix—with oil consumption increasing every year, with more and more of that oil coming from foreign countries. Nine in ten voters say the United States is too dependent on foreign crude.

Then why does Paul Roberts, author of The End of Oil, call the notion of energy independence a “populist charade masquerading as energy strategy?” In the latest issue of Mother Jones magazine, Roberts write that energy independence is primarily being used as a political trick by ethanol cheerleaders, electric utilities pushing coal and nuclear, and supporters of drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. Roberts delivers a reality check: We don’t stand a chance of quickly becoming energy independent.

Consider that it’s taken nearly eight years for hybrid cars to reach three percent of the new car market. Despite all the talk about other wonder car solutions—including clean diesel, cellulosic ethanol, plug-in hybrids, hypercars and hydrogen vehicles—those technologies have not even entered the market. If we fully acknowledge that these solutions will take a lot of time to roll out, then we’ll realize that we need to completely redefine the problem. Roberts writes:

“Even if we had good alternatives ready to deploy—a fleet of superefficient cars, say, or refineries churning out gobs of cheap hydrogen for fuel cells—we’d need decades, and great volumes of energy, including oil, to replace all the cars, pipelines, refineries, and other bits of the old oil infrastructure.”

Roberts warns that high oil prices won’t make much of a difference either. He explains that we’re burning more oil now than we were when crude sold for $25 a barrel. And don’t expect technology innovation to save us, because today’s energy challenge is unlike any that we’ve seen before. Our current energy infrastructure was built by cheap energy—but the next one will have to be built with far fewer resources and much more expensive energy.

So, what’s the answer? There aren’t any easy ones, according to Roberts. But first we have to stop sugarcoating the problem, and start pushing to a new era of “energy globalism.” We can take pride in our hybrids—and get all worked up about Volts, Teslas, and Apteras—but as long as China and India continue to build and sell cars using dirty old technologies (while abandoning bicycles), we will have achieved nothing. It’s not just about us anymore. “Oil prices won’t fall, evil regimes won’t be bankrupt, and sustainability won’t be possible,” writes Roberts, “until global oil demand is slowed.” Confronting energy issues on a global scale will be a daunting task, but it beats deceiving ourselves that we are driving our hybrids to a make-believe land of energy independence.


  • Armand

    Yes indeed it is a charade because:

    A) WE’VE BEEN shoving this wasteful lifestyle down everyone else’s throats and now that we see we’ve taken a big shit in our own living rooms, we want others to not do what we did….hypocritical selfish American egoism at its best.

    AND

    B) You’ve an advertisement of a Silverado Pickup next to the article about our dire oil situation? Can you get any more hypocritical? Get your advertising from elsewhere man…are you really that desperate?

  • steved28

    I love these articles where someone goes to great lengths to state the obvious. Then doesn’t offer any solutions. Talk about waisted energy.

  • Anonymous

    This article did not state the obvious, it stated the absurd. Of course we can have energy independence. Let’s accept that the average driver drives less than 32 miles a day. Therefore, just by driving “Volt” like cars with an AER of at least 32 miles, we could cut our gasoline usage by more than 50%.

    On top of that let’s accept we import about 60% of our oil used to produce gasoline, so that would drop to about 10%. More needs to be done, to shift electric generation from fossil fuel to nuclear and renewables, but to say the effort is a charade sounds like a story planted by big oil.

  • Anonymous

    And what happens to price when demand drops by 50%? And when the price decreases what will happen to demand? That’s right, we’ll be right back where we were, and demand for inefficient vehicles will be right back. We can’t just “cut demand” to solve this problem. We either pay high prices for energy, or find a way to loosen supply.

  • Anonymous

    Solutions: Instead of reinventing the wheel, look at what other Countries are doing successfully. France provides 85 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. It has an electric transportation system established throughout its Country (TVG, Tram, Metro). I recently saw a sign in Paris showing directions to an electric car charging station. These are viable solutions to our energy needs that are available to the USA now.

  • Anonymous

    It is not going to drop below the $1.00 per equivant gallon of juice. The story is a joke, mindless twaddle. Energy independence is a sound goal for America.

    And everyone knows how to resolve the problem, create a price structure for fuel like we have for water and electricity, where the more you use, the more you pay per unit volume. For example, if each licensed driver used less than 60 gallons in the last 30 days, the price would be market price. But if a drive went over 60 in the last 30, the surcharge of 25% would kick in. That way folks who are conserving would not be penalized, but those driving the gas guzzlers would be reminded they are doing more than their share of polluting our air.

  • Boom Boom

    I think folks are being a bit unfair to the article. There is a great deal of truth to the basic points in the article. True, he doesn’t offer any simple solutions, but that is just being honest. Solving the problem is not as easy as just driving a Prius (or a Volt, or whatever). The developing world needs to be part of the solution.

  • Tony

    Some contries actually ration vehicle fuels. Every licenced vehicle is entiltled to a low but realistic amount of fuel at low prices. Anything over that will cost much more to buy. This has helped them control their oil consumption.

  • TD

    The problem is solvable. Its just that no one is willing to pay the hundreds of billions of dollars it will take. It is a political will, money and management problem, not a technical one.

    To be sure there are still technical hurdles, but they are smaller than going to the moon and we won’t completely wean ourselves off of fossil fuels for probably three or four decades more. However, we have alternatives. Wind farms, solar farms, tidal energy and above all geothermal energy can be part of the solution. The tapping of geothermal energy with deep, deep wells like massive ground heat pumps, using the heat of the earth itself to generate power will be a big part of the solution.

  • DRoss

    They said, Columbus! don’t sail to the edge of the Earth, tempests will eat you. They said, The wagon without horses will never be a success. They said, Orvill and Wilber Wright was crazy to think they could fly like a bird. They said, your nuts if you think you can go to the moon. hahahaaa……what non-sence….WAIT! some one did JUST THAT!!!!

    Now we have some one saying that we can’t run a car or anything else on anything but oil? …..Ok.

    Phoenix is DOING it. Apteria is DOING it. Teslia is DOING it. Chevy Volt is DOING it. Reality check! We’er DOING what you say can’t be done. As soon as the other big corporations see the big money in it, they’ll be doing the dance too. Oil is the only energy source over the last 200 years that has been exploited by big corporations, now it’s running out. Now its the other alternate energies turn to be exploited by big corporations, just as soon as they figure out how to make the big money, to replace the money lost from a dieing energy source.

    In fact even, one big oil company is already trying to make the move to wind power production in Texes. Also, We are not trying to change the world, just America. So to blazes with all the other countries, let them choke on the left over drops of oil left in the world and smoke/pollute them selfs out. They will see the error of their ways soon and try to change also. Especially when their biggest customer drops out of the market for oil.

    I am even doing things in my home, like converting everything to electric, like the stove and furnace. Next I will convert over to solar panels and windmill power for my house. Most everyone can do it.

    Alternate energy sources is simply in it’s baby stage. It, like oil, will grow into normal life as well.

    Look for it, coming to a pump near you. ;)

  • Gerald Shields

    Ridiculous. We CAN achive energy independence, but do we have the collective will to achive it? We have the technology. We just need to put it all together.

  • Armand

    What about oil independence for other products other than cars?

    Do any of you realize that most of the products that are in your home, including your clothes, have petroleum products in them? Has there been any effort whatsoever to reduce plastic waste and production? Do any of you even recycle anywhere close enough to consider that?

    The oil companies have implanted themselves exceptionally well into our daily lives. None of you have come up with a solution to do anything about it.

  • Shines

    I think the point of the article (besides trying to get people riled up) is that it will take years to become energy independent. Our economy is oil based and so is the transportation infrastructure. The US has plenty of oil (oil shale) but it is not yet economically extractable. Then there is the environment.
    So far the only production vehicles are hybrids. The Volt is not being sold yet – which is the other point of the article, Sure there is technology out there and alternative energy sources, but the will and motivation to make these a major part of our economy is still lacking. If someone buys a brand new regular ICE Chevy Cobalt today that car is going to be used (and be using oil) for years.
    And bashing the oil companies doesn’t mean much. They have oil they want to sell and there are plenty of people around the World willing to buy it.
    If you don’t like the oil companies quit buying oil based products
    (good luck ; – P ).

  • DRoss

    Well other products that have oil in them can be replaced with other kinds of oil like organic oils which are currently being addressed by clothing factories and the canning industries. Cosmetics gets there oils from fish. Auto/diesel fuel comes from mineral oils right now, but the world is trying to figure out how to move the auto/diesel industry into the organic oil realm too.

    The difference about organic oil in other products is that, 1. the organic oils are not becoming scarce, and 2. we’er not burning them to power our vehicals and craft with, however that may change soon if the energy industry creates a organic fuel sucessfully that will work efficently and be enviromentally friendly to the climate. I don’t really see that happening though. But as for the other products we make from organic oils, I don’t think that will become an issue yet.

    Most organic oils come from plants, like the palm trees for example and sunflower seeds, etc, etc. What we need is something that can replace mineral oil and do the job mineral oil has aways been able to hand up till now. So far, Electric seems to be the main target for this daunting task. Next is how to produce it using an organic oil without impacting our food supplies or polluting the enviroment any futher or God willing, help us to clean the enviroment and help reverse the global warming trend some.

    Hydrogen fuel cells are to dangerous at high speeds, Methenal fuel cells gives off CO2 waste gases, Nuclear batteries are to dangerous to have around, solar is not efficent enought to pull the load, Wind is not constent enough to be efficent, water dynamos only work with a river or lake nearby.

    In facing reality, E85 may not be any better then crude mineral oil as far as pollutents go, but it would be able to help cut our dependency on oil from other countries some. Also, lets face another fact, fuel from corn is the closest thing we can move towards that will work for us. Its not the best, but it will work some. 1 beats 0 in my book. All the other idea alternate sources are still far fetched and no where near being perfected yet. but this may work till the other are perfected for use some day. With oil running out, we don’t have much of any choice. Thats the way I see things.

  • sean
  • roadsailors2004

    I am 65 years old now, and I can assure you that the prevalent environmentalist speaking when I was 30, the researchers and scientists preaching when I was 30, and even the politicians we elected when I was 30, were giving the warnings of the dire consequences of failure to evolve our sources of energy away from coal and oil. We have done nothing for 35 years, so I guess we are doomed to accept the deteriation of our life style as the future approaches ever more rapidly. My only concern at this age in my life is that someone, or some origanization of extreme power and authority should be made accountable and held responsible for the ultimate consequences of this failure to act in a timely mannor toward a very real problem that has been growing worse for an entire generation of humanity.
    NASA has been using hydrogen fuel cells for 40 years now, yet research and development in this arena for domestic use is less than 10 years old. My neighbor worked in middle management for Shell Oil for 35 years before retiring, and he assures me that as far as he knew, his lifetime employer did not spend one single penny on R&D for alternative energy sources. Our future, so be it. I do not envy our children or grandchildren. What have we done !!!!!

  • Need2Change

    We may never achieve complete energy independence, but we still need to strive to reduce our dependance on foreign energy.

  • John Brendel

    Within 10 years, our vehicles can easily consume 75% LESS oil they do now.

    STEP ONE.
    BUY A HYBRID to replace your gas-only car, truck, or SUV.

    If you ride a motorcycle, replace your gas-only bike with a Vectrix all-electric motorcycle. (www.vectrix.com, an American company that assembles its bikes in Poland, mostly European parts. They offer a regular two-wheeler and plan to sell a three-wheeler shortly.)

    When I say we need to switch to hybrids ASAP, this means a “full” hybrid like a Prius or Ford Escape. Not a bullshit “mild” hybrid like the Chevy Silverado, Saturn Vue or Saturn Aura (both only 24/32 mpg). A hybrid that uses the electric batteries to improve fuel economy, not deliver extra HP/torque like the Honda Accord hybrid did.

    Hybrids will soon get far better mileage than they do now. Toyota & Ford & the other majors are beginning the switch from nickel metal hydride batteries to lithium ion. The 3G Prius, which starts with the 2009 model, will be the last Prius using nickel metal hydride. After that it’s lithium ion phosphate or similar batteries. GM is using lithium ion batteries in the Volt.

    —————–

    STEP TWO. When affordable, BUY A PLUG-IN HYBRID.

    That’s right, for most people the goal should be to own only one “old-style” hybrid, as a transitional measure. After that, replace the hybrid with plug-ins that can run a fairly long distance without using an appreciable amount of gas.

    Many plug-in hybrids are coming to market soon. Here are 2 American companies that assemble their plug-in and all-electric vehicles in the USA:

    – Aptera (funky-looking 3-wheeled vehicle for $30 k)
    Available in California 2009, elsewhere later

    – Phoenix Motor Cars (truck $48k and SUV $55 k)
    Available in California 2009, elsewhere soon after

    Fisker and Tesla have incredible all-electric cars available, of course, but for $80-110 k. They will likely offer all-electric cars and plug-in hybrids for well less than half that price.

    These three are Canadian companies:
    – Zenn Cars, vehicles assembled in Quebec
    – Electrovaya
    – Magna

    ———————-

    STEP THREE.
    If you can afford it, install a solar power or wind turbine system (depending on your local climate) to power your home.

    This is where we really make progress on all fronts: once you have a plug-in hybrid, you can recharge your car entirely with sun or wind power.

    If you can’t afford a solar or wind system on your home — or rent rather than own — check whether your local utility company offers a “Green Generation” program. You pay a slightly higher rate and the company is obligated to generate the amount of energy used by your household, from renewable, low-air-pollution sources (solar, wind, nuclear) rather than coal.

    ———————-

    There are even solar panels available now to be mounted on cars.

    The “charade” is telling people that we can’t achieve energy independence — when we have the means of substantially ameliorating the situation right in our hands.

    ———————–

  • GreenRepublican

    My daily commute is only 12 miles round-trip. A lot of people drive farther than that, but the majority of Americans have a round-trip less than 25 miles — well within the alll-electric range of several forthcoming plug-in hybrids.

    That means that with a plug-in hybrid, most of us will use almost no gas during the typical week.

    How about some exact numbers.
    I drive about 10,000 miles a year.

    Of that, about 7,000 miles are short local trips (office, church, groceries, errands), that a plug-in hybrid can handle in all-electric mode.

    The remaining 3,000 miles consists of long-distance road trips that exceed the all-electric range. Even then, the first 40+ miles (in a Chevy Volt) or 100+ miles (Phoenix Motor Cars) from home will be all-electric before the gas engine needs to do much.

    Even for the portion of the long trips that require heavy use of the gas engine, I’ll get 60 mpg (more than double what my current car gets).

    In other words, as soon as I get a plug-in hybrid, my gas consumption will drop AT LEAST SEVENTY-FIVE PERCENT.

    Overnight.

    THAT’S how we start achieving energy independence, Paul Roberts.

  • Armand

    Organic oils come from plants…yes….and guess what happens to these plants and trees that are critical to our ecosystem?

    We’re destroying our foliage and trees and forest at unprecedented rates to make these oils and use them. Guess what that does to our CO2 levels?

  • Going2Green

    As the Democratic Convention wraps up and the hoopla of the Republican Convention heats up Americans are still left with a sense of a lot of hot air of any concrete plans to end the energy crisis in America. Northerners dread the upcoming onset of fall and colder weather wondering how they will be able to afford how to keep their homes and families warm. Southerners have been sweating the high cost of energy raising the thermostat to save on their electric bills. Families everywhere are wondering where else they can cut back to cover the cost of fueling up the family vehicle to get back and forth to work and take care of the necessities of life. There is no money left for relaxation and family fun. The stress level continues to rise. The average electric bill has risen 16% to cover the power companies additional production costs. A gallon of milk is almost as precious as a gallon of gas. The cost of every consumer product has risen sharply. American’s are stretched to the limit. Jobs are being lost, foreclosures are increasing at an alarming rate. Seems even the family pets are suffering the high cost of fuel as almost daily a new story is on TV about shelters being forced to euthanize record number of surrendered pets from those forced out of their homes or no longer able to care for them. The energy crisis in our country is far reaching and needs immediate attention. I am hoping whoever gets elected will get their act together and make this their #1 priority.

    An interesting site to share…

    http://www.themanhattanprojectof2009.com

  • Stan the Man

    Energy independence is possible. The first step is to do away with the Dept of Energy. The second step is to end Govt. subsidies to force a solution. Let the inventors and the free market find the path. The third step is for everyone to recognise that different locations in the USA have different energy needs. Some locations are not suited for solar power, some are not suited for wind power generation, and some locations have no people density or short commutes suitable for mass transit. In other words, don’t force a solution that only works for a segment of society. Most of Europe has poor roads and dense populations while most of the USA does not.

  • Shine

    They should make hybrid cars affordable.

  • Shine

    They should make hybrid cars affordable.
    http://palmtreecare.net/windmill-palm-tree-care/

  • Shine

    They should make hybrid cars affordable. http://palmtreecare.net

  • Nicole Martinez

    Will we ever be free from the bondage of oil? http://www.autotransportplus.com/

  • Joy

    When we run out of oil then we won’t have a choice anymore but use alternative energy source.

    http://www.braungresham.com/

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  • Van

    So observations with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. This article and many of the comments were written in 2008. Note the mention of vaporware products funded by government grants. And Plug-ins are still just getting started with the Ford Fusion Energi hitting the market next March.

    Have we built any new Coal or Nuclear Electrical Generation Stations? Not many. Have we brought in natural gas from Canada. Nope, blocked by the Democrats.

    The article seems to suggest National or North American energy independence is not a worthy goal because it would not reduce global oil consumption. But the blood-letting in the middle east has continued, while we have not reduced our consumption of foreign, i.e. not North American oil.

    When I was young we used to sin a song about blowing in the wind. The answer my friend is blowing in the wind to the question of how many soldiers must die, before we end our dependence on foreign oil. Four years and counting… this time volt for energy independence.