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.