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For the past forty years, the United States has been dependent on foreign oil. In the early 1970s, declining domestic production and America’s ever increasing thirst for oil made dependency on imports a necessity, whilst the OPEC Revolution and the 1973 Arab oil embargo seemed to also make dependency a serious threat to national security.

Beginning with the formulation of Nixon’s “Project Independence”, the US has sought to reverse this worrisome position and restore what is usually imagined as a quasi-paradisiacal state of nature: energy independence. Yet, while president after president emphasised the importance of tackling the problem, US net oil imports kept rising, until they peaked in 2005 at about 12.5 million barrels of oil per day, 65% of total US demand.

More recently, however, these decades-old truths no longer seem to hold. Domestic production keeps increasing. At the same time, consumption has plummeted due to recession and increases in energy efficiency. Last year, for the first time since Truman’s presidency, the United States exported more oil and refined more oil products than it imported. Industry experts say it is the beginning of a trend. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal hint that the national energy independence of old may finally be within reach again. [1]

What can we make of these developments?

To begin with, as a solution to the purported problem of foreign oil dependence, energy independence is a largely meaningless concept. First of all, the United States still imports huge quantities of crude oil—close to 9 million barrels per day in 2011—and will continue to do so under any scenario. Even if the country miraculously reduced its imports to zero, developments anywhere in the global market will still directly impact the American economy for as long as the United States continues to consume petroleum-based products. As Daniel Yergin, one of America’s most renowned energy expert once put it, “there is only one oil market […] Secession is not an option”. [2]

But ending the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and securing energy independence are perhaps not goals that actually need to be achieved. Why? The answer lies in the nature of dependence. For decades, policymakers and experts have seen foreign oil dependence as a concrete economic and political problem which required sober technical analysis and efficient solutions—an approach perhaps best reflected in countless attempts to quantify precisely the various costs and benefits of importing oil.

However, thinking about oil only in the language of solutions overlooks an important point: that the condition of “foreign oil dependence” and the aspiration of “energy independence” are also discourses that reflect, and serve to actualize, American culture and identity. For the past forty years, these twin notions have acted as big ideas around which all Americans could rally to affirm images of self and other.

The notion of foreign oil dependence, for instance, has always been intimately connected with threats that have far exceeded the traditional realm of “national security” and include threats to American identity. One major concern has linked dependency with the continued viability of a specifically American, suburban, automotive way of life. Another is the promise of economic growth, individual opportunity, and social mobility —
all encapsulated in the American dream.

Not a Favourite (Flickr)

At the same time, the nature of the dangers inherent in foreign oil has changed with the times. In the 1970s, reliance on OPEC oil was routinely assumed to pose an existential threat to the existence of a liberal, US-led international order. In the context of a widespread sense of American decline, what seemed to be at stake was nothing less than the status of the United States as a great power and the leader of the free world.

In post-9/11 energy debates, by contrast, foreign oil dependence has been linked to American identity in new ways. Middle East oil has become bound up with the notion of a clash of civilizations and the threat posed by radical Islam, both of which are said to imply a fundamental challenge to the American way of life. As George W. Bush routinely affirmed with a view to the Middle East: “it jeopardizes our national security to be dependent on sources of energy from countries that don’t care for America, what we stand for, what we love”. [3]

From this perspective, what matters most about dependency is that it has constituted the basis for an encounter between the United States and oil’s foreign places of origin—an encounter that has afforded American society an ongoing opportunity for self-representation and the drawing of cultural boundaries.

The notion of energy interdependence is even more powerful in this regard. The longevity and popularity of the absurd idea that the United States could ever return to the self-sufficiency of the first half of the 20th century has long puzzled energy experts. “What is it about ‘energy independence’”, wonders ex Shell-CEO John Hofmeister, “that keeps this mantra in the political rhetoric of political campaign after campaign?” [4]

Perhaps, the best answer is that energy independence has never been a simple technical, economic or political solution to the problem of foreign oil dependence; rather, it has been a cultural artifact, a discourse evoking particular American notions of the exceptional nation, American innovation and ingenuity, the can-do spirit, and the very notion of “independence” on which the American national project has been built. As Hofmeister puts is: “There’s something earthy, powerful, atavistic, and pugilistic, even legitimately xenophobic about saying [energy independence]. It speaks for all Americans regardless of gender, ethnicity or age”. [4]

From this perspective, there is no need to actually achieve energy independence for it to be effective. In fact, if the United States ever did achieve complete self-sufficiency, one of the principal narratives around which the nation has been imagined for the past four decades would likely disappear.

Sebastian Herbstreuth is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the University of Cambridge. 

[1] Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Nears Milestone: Net Fuel Exporter”, 31 November 2011; The New York Times, “U.S. Inches Toward Goal of Energy Independence”, 22 March 2012.

[2] Daniel Yergin, “Ensuring Energy Security”, Foreign Affairs 85:2 (2006), 69-82.

[3] George W. Bush, “Remarks on Energy Independence”, 06 February 2003, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=63784.

[4] John Hofmeister, Why We Hate the Oil Companies. Straight Talk from an Energy Insider, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, 25.

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