The Wall Street Journal
November 26, 2014
By Dr. Ariel Cohen

“Energy independence” has become a buzzword too closely associated with U.S. neo-isolationism. It is true that calorie by calorie, the U.S. can become “energy independent,” especially if it fully taps its massive fossil-fuel resources.

However, as Daniel Yergin puts it, energy independence“resonates powerfully with the American public and comes imbued with a nostalgia for a more manageable time when prices were low and the United States really could go it alone.”

President Richard M. Nixon introduced the term “energy independence” in his “Project Independence” speech, given three months after the Arab oil embargo of 1973. He claimed energy independence was possible in seven years. Nixon was attempting to outdo President John F. Kennedy’s bid for a moon landing by the end of the 1960s. However, Nixon clearly failed in his endeavor: Imports nearly doubled in the four decades following his speech.

Despite this history, the phrase remains a part of the U.S. political lexicon to this day. The concept as we know it envisions an America virtually import-free and self-sufficient in oil and gas. In reality, the closest we can probably get to this is North American energy independence, which also would involve Canada and Mexico.

So how is the word misused? First, the absolute and per capita rate of energy consumption in the U.S. is the highest in the world­–so meeting that thirst using local production only would be quite a challenge. In addition, relying entirely on domestic production also removes source diversification, which would insulate the U.S. in the event of crises or downturns in its domestic energy industry. Further, even if the U.S. could become self-sufficient, the price of oil here would still be affected by the interdependent, globalized oil sector and the role Saudi Arabia is playing in establishing oil prices.

Instead the term “energy security” is more appropriate, defined as “the availability of sufficient energy supply at affordable prices.” The U.S. has gone well past the point of isolation.

Happy talk about “energy independence” is not going to change it.

Ariel Cohen is director of the Center for Energy Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and principal at International Market Analysis, a political risk advisory firm in Washington, D.C.