In 1973, when President Richard Nixon said, “Our independence will depend on maintaining and achieving self-sufficiency in energy,” the United States imported 34.8 percent of its oil from foreign countries. In 1979, when President Jimmy Carter said the country will “never again use more foreign oil than we did in 1977,” imports were up to 45 percent of the nation’s oil supply. Dependence on foreign oil did indeed fall during a few economically troubled years when smaller, foreign-built cars gained popularity and American manufacturers reduced the weight of their vehicles. But that began to change when oil prices dropped in the mid-1980s, and by 1990, when President George H.W. Bush talked of the need to reverse “excessive dependence on foreign oil” at the dawn of the first Persian Gulf War, the United States was importing 42.2 percent of its oil. By the time his son ran for office, sport utility vehicles ruled the roads and 52.9 percent of the nation’s petroleum came from overseas. By 2006, when President Bush declared in his State of the Union that the nation was addicted to oil, foreign countries were delivering 59.9 percent of the fix. Geology has dealt the United States a bad hand if it hopes to achieve energy independence while continuing to rely heavily on oil. America’s old fields are tapped out; U.S. oil production has been in an inexorable decline since its peak in 1971. The government has pushed for the oil industry to squeeze out more domestic supply. Federal subsidies approved by Congress in 1995 encouraged a boom in oil drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. And the Bush administration’s Department of the Interior streamlined the process for drilling on federal lands, nearly doubling the number of permits approved each year. Nonetheless, U.S. oil production plummeted 22 percent over the past 10 years to about the same level that the nation’s oil fields were producing in 1947. All of the oil remaining beneath the United States amounts to less than 2 percent of the world’s known petroleum reserves. In contrast, Saudi Arabia sits on 20 percent of the world’s oil, and together with the dozen other countries of OPEC, controls 71 percent of global black gold. That’s why, recent cries of “drill, baby, drill” notwithstanding, experts have long agreed that the nation cannot escape its foreign energy dependence as long as more than 95 percent of transportation is fueled by oil and demand grows each year. The federal government has not yet put together the sort of comprehensive policy that might actually facilitate energy independence. Neither the Clinton nor the Bush administrations used the authority they had under the law to force automakers to produce more efficient cars, and Congress likewise avoided taking on Detroit for 32 years. That changed last year, when Congress passed and President Bush signed a law requiring that the average fuel economy of U.S. vehicles, stalled at 27.5 miles per gallon since the late 1980s, would move up to 35 mpg by 2020. As for oil alternatives, Washington has given the most support to the one with the most political clout — ethanol, the fuel alcohol derived from corn. Congress ramped up the “renewable fuels” mandate last year, pleasing the farm states and ethanol industry backers from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, even while critics charged that diverting so much of the nation’s grain to fuel was straining food supplies and prices. These policy changes, if they pan out, will have but a modest impact on the nation’s foreign oil dependency; the government’s energy forecasters, figuring in the impact of the new law’s ethanol and efficiency mandates, say that in 2030, the nation will rely on foreign nations for 54.3 percent of its oil supplies.
Hope for a new generation of fuel-efficient vehicles, and the capital investments they would require, has been clouded by the travails of the U.S. auto industry, which has been driven to the brink by the financial crisis; automakers are seeking funding help from Washington. This year marked one achievement in the effort to reduce foreign oil dependency — the first significant decline in U.S. gasoline demand in 17 years. Americans were driving less, however, not due to any success of government policy, but thanks first to sky-high oil prices, and then to unemployment and the nation’s economic woes.