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Election Calls for US Oil Independence a Pipe Dream

WASHINGTON - U.S. election-year pledges by both presidential candidates to wean the nation from its foreign oil dependence have vote-winning potential but may be just a pipe dream, energy experts say.

Less than eight weeks before the election, both U.S. presidential candidates this week called for less dependence on foreign oil suppliers like Saudi Arabia, which collectively satisfy about 65 percent of U.S. demand.

"What I'm telling you is we need an energy policy that makes us less dependent on foreign sources of energy," President Bush told a crowd in Huntington, West Virginia, last week.

Bush's speech in the coal-producing state touted conservation, efficiency and cleaner-burning power plants.

Such pronouncements could resonate with voters, but they ring empty with the experts.

Cutting U.S. foreign oil dependence is a "silly notion for politicians," said Herman Franssen, president of the International Energy Associates, Inc. "It's like saying when you're obese that you should stop importing foreign food," he told a Hudson Institute oil panel earlier this week.

"You need to reduce your dependence on (all) oil," Franssen said. "Not foreign oil. Oil."

Democratic contender John Kerry has explicitly attacked what he says is the Bush administration's too-cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is consistently a top U.S. supplier.

"George W. Bush's energy policy is to trust the big oil companies and the Saudis," Kerry said in prepared remarks in Cincinnati this week. "I want an America that relies on its own ingenuity and innovation, not the Saudi royal family."

Both candidates have called for more conservation, renewable supplies and drilling in some offshore Gulf of Mexico fields. Bush has called for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which Kerry opposes.

Some polls show that such statements have traction with voters, who saw gasoline prices soar over $2 per gallon this year and crude oil prices flirt with $50 per barrel.

"Never has there been more support for self-reliance than there is today," said pollster Frank Luntz. An August Luntz poll of 800 potential voters showed that 50 percent of respondents want more renewable energy sources, while only 6 percent want closer U.S.-Saudi ties.

Kerry's Democratic convention remarks that America rely on "innovation, not the Saudi royal family" for energy was "the best statement in the entire convention," Luntz said. The statement had support of 74 percent of poll respondents.

SAUDIS TO THE RESCUE

With about a quarter of the world's proven crude oil reserves and the only OPEC nation with spare capacity, Saudi Arabia will remain an integral U.S. supplier, experts say.

In past years the kingdom has opened its oil taps to calm panic-stricken markets during two U.S. military actions in the Middle East and an oil workers' strike in Venezuela.

"The Saudis always came to the rescue," Franssen said. "There is no substitute."

Houston analyst Matthew Simmons has questioned the veracity of the Saudis' crude oil reserve estimates and asserted that its oil production is near its peak. The kingdom has repeatedly defended its reserve data as conservative.

"Like it or not we will always need Saudi Arabia," said Simmons, chairman of Simmons and Co. International. "But we should not assume that they will always be there."

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