Energy Policy

Energy Independence


When we hear politicians talking about energy policy, one of the buzz phrases that comes up the most is energy independence. It's one issue related to energy policy where politicians agree - being energy independent is preferable to relying on the resources of other countries to meet our huge energy consumption demands.

Let's move beyond energy independence as a buzz phrase, though, and take a look at the facts about where our energy comes from, how much that costs us, and how we would really achieve energy independence as a country.

Sources of U.S. Petroleum Imports, 2021
Country Percentage of Imports
Canada 51
Mexico 8
Russia 8
Saudi Arabia 5
Columbia 2
Credit: EIA:  Then take a look at the Top 15 countries from which we import crude oil and other petroleum products.

Petroleum - the EIA categorizes crude oil and other petroleum products (including gasoline, diesel, heating oil, propane, liquefied natural gas, and biofuels) together. These fuels are used for a variety of functions, including transportation and home heating. In 2009, the US consumed 18.8 million barrels of oil.....every day.

Are you surprised when you look at this pie chart? I was the first time. I had assumed that a much higher percentage of our oil came from the Middle East.

Take a look at the EIA Energy Explained site to learn more about energy production and consumption.

Graph of Top 5 Crude Oil Producing Countries 1980-2021
Top 5 Crude Oil Producing Countries from 1980-2016
Credit: Oil and Oil Products Explained US Energy Information Administration. International Energy Statistics. September 2022

The graph above illustrates the fluctuating production rates for the top five crude oil producing countries in the world. Does anything surprise you? Notice how shortly after 2000, Russia began producing almost as much annually as Saudi Arabia. US production has increased sharply in recent years and is now the world leader, while Iraq holds relatively steady in the 2-4 million barrels a day range (conflict times aside).

Natural gas - most of the natural gas that we use in the United States is extracted and distributed domestically, with small amounts coming from Canada. In recent years, substantial gas reserves in rock formations across the country have been discovered and are starting to be explored and processed. We've already talked about one of these, the Marcellus Shale region across Appalachia. Natural gas is used for heating and cooking, and increasingly as a fuel for large vehicles like buses and trucks.

The graph below shows the US consumption, production, and imports for natural gas from 1950-2016.  If you look around 2005, you can see the impact unconventional production has had on overall production and consumption.  Why the increase in consumption?  As natural gas prices fell, many coal-fired boilers in steam plants were converted to burn natural gas or replaced with natural gas boilers.  You can also see that as domestic production has increased in recent years, imports have gone down, which is what you would expect.  

Graphic showing natural gas consumption, production and import trends 1950-2016
US Natural Gas Consumption, Dry Production, and Net Imports, 1950-2016
Credit: US Natural Gas Consumption, Dry Production, and Net Imports, 1950-2016. US Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, Table 4.1.  (Public Domain)

A gateway fuel? - Natural gas is often touted as a bridge to a cleaner, more reliable energy future. With greenhouse gas emissions roughly half those of coal combustion, natural gas is being marketed as a cleaner fossil fuel. Life cycle assessments evaluating the entire processes involved in extraction and processing for both fuels are being done to determine the real environmental footprint of using these fuels.

Working with renewables? - In addition to the lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal, power plants fueled by natural gas have another distinctive benefit of offering reliable, scalable back up power generation for renewable sources like wind and solar. Wind and solar supplies are less predictable and may fluctuate in short cycles. With little ability for commercially-available large-scale storage options for these energy sources, the presence of a reliable back-up source is crucial. Natural gas-fired power plants have the ability to cycle more rapidly than their coal-fired counterparts, quickly adjusting the amount of electricity they can produce to meet demands.

Coal - the abundant domestic fossil fuel is in many ways an iconic and cultural fixture in our society denoting progress and growth. Coal is cheap, readily available, and we've got the infrastructure to burn it. Coal is responsible for about half of the electricity in the US. We also use coal in the production of steel. Unfortunately, coal combustion results in high greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to consuming a lot of coal domestically, we also produce and export large quantities of coal. Some areas of the country (like the Gulf states) actually find it cheaper to import foreign coal than to transport it from the distant domestic places of origin.

Five states produced approximately 70% of US coal in 2021 (EIA, 2022):

  • Wyoming - 41%
  • West Virginia - 14%
  • Pennsylvania - 7%
  • Illinois - 6%
  • Kentucky - 5%

The Road to Energy Independence - as you can see by examining the roles of various fossil fuels in our overall energy picture, we are not, as a country, currently totally at the mercy of foreign energy supply. But remember, as we gulp down 18.8 million barrels of oil a day, even a fraction of that is still a large volume. Will increasing our use of natural gas be the answer to solving our shorter term goals of reduced reliance on foreign oil? Remember that it's not as easy as flipping a switch....things currently running on petroleum-based products must be converted or replaced to accommodate a new fuel source like natural gas. What will be the drivers for these changes? Consumer demand? Escalating energy prices? Volatility in oil exporting regions? Political will? Do you think we'll see an energy independent United States in our lifetime?

Global Markets, Local Effects: Several years ago, we witnessed a ripple of protests across oil producing countries, as citizens demand democracy and freedom. Here's an article explaining how unrest in Libya influenced global oil prices. Read this and do some research on your own to better understand the price fluctuations at the pump. Here's another article explaining how Saudi Arabia's price war with Russia at the start of the coronavirus pandemic also created chaos. Just another reason to bolster our domestic clean energy initiatives!

The EIA offers a summary of Oil Prices and Outlook is certainly worth 5 minutes because it offers perspective that is 1) factually correct and 2) all too often missing from the dialogue regarding the subject to which we're exposed via the popular media and our politicians.