Monday, April 4, 2011

Energy Independence Part 1: Reducing Oil Imports

“For the first time since the first oil shock, I see us decreasing our dependency on imported oil,” Steven Chu, the energy secretary, said in an interview. Noting that the country now imports half its oil, he added: “Can we be at half that in 20 years? Yeah, there is a real possibility of that.”

Some analysts said that even faster change was possible, but that could mean big government subsidies and taxes to build more high-speed rail lines, to encourage truck and bus fleets to switch to natural gas and to push the development of wind, solar and geothermal energy. The storage capacity of car batteries would have to improve, and plentiful, low-cost biofuels from plant waste or algae would have to come to market. In the short term, more domestic drilling, including offshore and perhaps in the Alaskan Arctic, would be needed, whatever environmental damage it might bring. Higher gasoline prices are likely, from market forces or taxes or both.

In other words, to reduce oil imports by nearly half to 1982 levels — they amounted to 28 percent of total consumption then — might enrage conservatives, liberals, environmentalists and climate-change skeptics alike.

But some of the changes have already been set in motion.

Amy Jaffe, associate director of the Rice University Energy Program, and other Rice researchers expect a drop of 4.3 million barrels a day in the use of oil by 2025 simply through improved fuel efficiency of vehicles mandated by Congress. That equals more than a third of current imports.

An additional 2.5 million barrels a day could be eliminated by 2050 with policies to make electric cars 20 percent of the American car fleet, the Rice researchers say.

Because the United States has bountiful supplies of coal, natural gas and nuclear energy, as well as growing amounts of energy from renewable sources, the nation is already independent when it comes to the electrical power that heats and cools its homes and buildings and runs its factories.

With the glut in natural gas that has developed in the last five years, there is the potential to have enough to power vehicles directly or through eventual electrification of the transportation fleet. Electrical capacity could also be developed with a federal effort to extend transmission lines to link wind and solar power sources with large population centers. In the aftermath of the Japanese disaster, nuclear power will need to be put on safer footing and expanded. Future improvements in the energy efficiency of buildings could reduce the fuel they consume.

The problem the nation faces is easy to define: it’s the 19 million barrels of oil a day used by its cars, trucks and aircraft. Though the United States remains one of the largest oil producers in the world, it has been an importer since the late 1940s, with imports rising and domestic production declining fairly steadily year after year over the last quarter-century, until recently.

Since 2007, the United States has decreased its oil imports from nations of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries by more than a million barrels a day (including 400,000 barrels less from Saudi Arabia and 300,000 less from Venezuela), while decreasing its imports from non-OPEC countries by half that much, according to the Energy Department.

During the 1970s, synthetic fuel from oil sands was little more than an experiment. Now more than 20 percent of United States oil imports come from Canada, and half of that from oil sands. That could expand considerably if the Obama administration approves the extension of the Keystone pipeline to Gulf of Mexico refineries, as expected.

Synthetic oil from Canadian oil sands is dirtier to produce than most conventional crude, but it will be produced; if the United States does not import that oil, China will. Another 10 percent of American imports comes from Mexico, and increasing amounts from Colombia and Brazil, two dependable allies. The shifting sands of oil could be seen when President Obama did not cancel his recent trip to Brazil even as allied air and naval forces went on the attack in Libya.

The potentially unstable or otherwise unreliable countries of the Persian Gulf and North Africa, Venezuela and perhaps Nigeria, supply a combined total of about five million barrels a day — about a quarter of United States consumption.

In 2009, the United States produced more oil than the year before for the first since 1985, because of the combined increase in production from deepwater Gulf of Mexico production and drilling in a giant shale field in North Dakota.

Domestic production again rose in 2010, by 3 percent, while imports have fallen slowly but steadily since 2006. Edward Westlake, a Credit Suisse managing director for energy research, calculates that the United States will be producing an additional 2.4 million barrels of oil and other liquid fuels by 2016, on top of the 8.6 million barrels a day produced in 2010, even with a natural decline in existing domestic oil fields.

More information:
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