What's so bad about foreign oil?
How achieving "energy independence" would leave Americans worse off.
August 8, 2008
There are many things I want independence from -- incoming e-mail, the section of my wedding vows about monogamy, this bogus corporation I created to lower my taxes but now takes up all of my time, Sam Zell -- but foreign oil is not one of them. Foreign oil is my favorite kind of oil. It means other nations clog their beaches with ugly rigs, do dangerous work and suffer environmental disasters and I still get to cruise Sunset Boulevard in my yellow Mini Cooper convertible. Oil exploration is an industry America should look to expand right after alchemy research and pyramid building.
Yet Barack Obama and John McCain, in speeches and ads, have spent this week arguing about who is most serious about achieving independence from foreign energy. Both are willing to drill offshore even though that won't produce more gasoline until long after we all own electric cars. And both want to relieve gas prices by tapping the government's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, despite the fact that there's no emergency and higher prices are the only thing that has been effective at getting Americans to curb consumption of foreign oil. The only smart thing I heard was Obama's advice to fully inflate your tires, though he overlooked the fact that gas stations no longer have free air pumps, or even decent pay ones. I'm surprised he didn't tell us to save gas by not getting lost with the aid of free Amoco maps.
If the candidates wanted to be independent from all oil, I'd embrace that green goal. But they only hate foreign oil. As if foreign oil was inherently different from good, God-fearing, strong-work-ethic American oil, the kind that is ignited by freedom and burns terrorism and France. To the commodities market, there is no American oil, no American cotton, no American aluminum, no American coffee -- they all get bid on without national prejudice. Even I know that, and my academic study of commodities consists solely of watching "Trading Places."
If we were energy independent, the politicians imply, prices wouldn't go up. But if you're an oil-striking American dude -- maybe a little naive, but smart enough to know that your hot daughter Elly May is going to be better off in Beverly Hills than the Ozarks -- you're going to shop your barrels to the highest bidder in the world, not just to whiny Americans with their near-worthless dollars. More oil procured from under U.S. soil means more oil on the global market, not more oil for just us.
And yet the candidates talk as if the U.S. were one giant energy-buying socialist entity that can choose exactly where all its oil comes from. The U.S. market consists of millions of individual global transactions, some of which you make at the gas station. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, last year, the U.S. bought oil from 90 countries and exported oil to 73.
A country is not stronger if it produces everything itself. Econ 101 teaches you that everyone benefits when people who are good at one thing, such as having oil, can exchange it with people who are good at something else, such as sitting in offices and surfing the Web.
And even if we cut down on imported oil, we're still dependent on other nations. We import electricity from Mexico and Canada. We import 20% of our natural gas and 80% of the uranium for nuclear reactors. All of our solar power is directly imported from the sun.
If being independent from foreign oil is good, so would being independent from foreign fish, foreign cars, foreign beer and foreign movies. Do you want to live in a world without Spanish mackerel, Priuses, Guinness or Mr. Bean?
Self-sufficiency won't make us safer either. Sure, if we went to war with Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and Russia and Mexico and Canada at once, moving our armies around would be tough, but that would be the least of our worries: We'd have some kind of mob-funded, hockey-goon, masked-wrestler army at our door. Outside that scenario, energy interdependence makes us more secure. When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit in 2005, for instance, we got oil to the ravaged Gulf Coast by buying extra from Venezuela and the Netherlands.
Robert Bryce, the author of the new book "Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence," is sure the presidential candidates know all of this. "The rhetoric is helping to support multibillion-dollar boondoggles like the ethanol scam," he said. "When they say, 'energy independence,' they mean, 'Vote for me.' It's all it means."
The only solution to our energy panic, I believe, is to get monthly bills for gasoline, just like we do for water, electricity and cellphone minutes. All that staring at those hundredths of a cent speeding by on a gauge is bound to make people crazy, lashing out at foreigners and large corporations. If bartenders attached one of those things to their taps, we'd have candidates promising independence from foreign beer too.