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Is Energy Independence Likely For The US?

gas pump
Flickr Creative Commons

There has been a buzz in the media over the past couple of years about impending US energy independence. University of Dayton professor Bob Brecha has some thoughts on how likely this scenario is.

Many of us have seen or heard news stories predicting that the U.S. will become the world’s leading oil producer within a decade, and that North America as a whole could become a net exporter of oil in two decades’ time. Energy independence — a goal of U.S. administrations since the energy crises of the 1970s — may be within reach.

So why aren’t gasoline prices dropping when we fill up our tanks in the middle of this oil boom? There are several points to be made about these projections. First, we have to recognize that the days of easy oil are gone. The International Energy Agency, or IEA, says that world production of conventional crude oil is on a plateau and will soon decline. New supplies of liquid fuels come from unconventional resources like shale oil and tar sands. Although substitution of new types of fuel for increasingly scarce conventional oil is exactly what economic theory would predict, prices will remain high for gasoline. Increasing production of oil in the U.S. will not lead to significant reductions in costs of oil, except in the case of another worldwide recession.

Internationally, OPEC is expected to be an increasingly dominant force in world oil markets over the next few decades. Headlines that project the U.S. to be the world’s largest producer by 2015 or 2020 sound good, but the same reports show Saudi Arabia re-taking the lead by 2025.

Perhaps the most important factor for increasing independence is improved energy efficiency. By using less liquid fuel and temporarily increased production, the U.S. will reduce imports of oil by 2035. Although population and the economy are set to grow, and production may increase to levels close to those of the 1970s, the US demand for liquid fuels will decrease. We can make great strides toward using more energy-efficient vehicles in the future, driven by policies such as the higher mileage standards produced by the Obama administration, something that is long overdue, since Europe, Japan and China all have higher mileage standards than we do.

In the end, the biggest untapped resource in the US is not deep underground and stuck in shale, but right in front of us, and accessible by learning how to live comfortably while using less energy.

Bob Brecha is a professor of physics and renewable and clean energy. He is the coordinator of the Sustainability, Energy and The Environment program at the University of Dayton.