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Trump, Biden Spar Over US Energy Independence

By Scott Waldman

Energy independence is having a moment in the run-up to November’s presidential election.

“We were energy independent three years ago,” former President Donald Trump said at a rally last month in Dayton, Ohio. He claimed President Joe Biden had “closed up the oil,” and he vowed to “turn it around fast” if he wins back the White House.

Not to be outdone, Biden campaign spokesperson James Singer told E&E News that under the current president the “United States is closer to energy independence than we have been in decades.”

Energy experts say both campaigns are oversimplifying the issue.

Energy independence is really just a “political slogan,” said Andrew Campbell, executive director of the Energy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

“That really doesn’t translate to anything that really matters to our economy in any direct way,” he said. “The concept of it, to me, doesn’t hold any meaning.”

In reality, it’s an open question whether the U.S. achieved energy independence under Biden or Trump, because of the term’s varying definitions.

One definition holds that energy independence occurs when the United States produces more energy than it consumes. That allows for some energy imports.

Under those terms, both Biden and Trump achieved energy independence.

While Biden rarely talks about oil and gas production under his watch — an effort to avoid angering progressive climate voters — output this year likely will break another record.

And for the last six years — starting under Trump’s term and continuing to today — the U.S. has annually produced “more crude oil than any country, ever,” according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

A more stringent definition for energy independence bars the import of all foreign fuels. According to that understanding, the U.S. hasn’t been energy independent for more than 75 years.

Energy independence is a “useless term” because it ignores the reality that oil and gas are part of a global market, said Harrison Fell, an energy economics expert and associated professor at North Carolina State University.

What’s more, U.S. refiners don’t have the capacity for all the lighter oil produced domestically and are always importing heavier crude from other countries, he said. Domestic refineries, largely built before the U.S. fracking boom, are designed to process the heavier crude oil produced in Russia and the Middle East, while the light, sweet crude produced in the U.S. is often cheaper to export.

“The problem with this is that some of our energy products are globally traded commodities, oil, obviously being the primary one of those,” he said. “And so when you have a globally traded commodity like oil, then even if you’re producing more than you’re consuming, you’re still going to be exposed to international supply and demand disruptions because that affects a global price.”

One notable step the U.S. has taken toward independence from global oil markets is the expansion of clean energy, which is not vulnerable to global price shocks, Fell said. Reducing reliance on fossil fuels is a key, and often overlooked, step toward energy independence, he said.

“Because electricity is not internationally traded, this is one way in which you can reduce your exposure to international oil market-based shocks by having a transportation fleet that’s electrically powered,” he said. “Basically all of our electricity is produced domestically, that’s going to shelter us from some of those international shocks.”

In politics, the term has been around since the 1970s, when a U.S. energy crisis led to gasoline shortages and lines of angry motorists, according to Campbell, from the University of California, Berkeley.

He said the term has its roots in the 1973 Oil Embargo, in which Arab nations that were part of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries placed an embargo on the United States and other allies that were supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War.

By that point, the U.S. had become totally reliant on foreign countries for its oil supplies and the economy took a major hit. As a result, then-President Richard Nixon put in place policies to boost U.S. oil production and shift away from dependence on the Middle East.

It was only in the past 15 or so years, because of technological advances in fracking, the U.S. approached something closer to independence, Campbell said. The fracking boom has seen the U.S. become major producer of oil and gas during the tenure of Republican and Democratic presidents, regardless of their policies.

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