The presidential candidates are touting their plans to reduce the USA’s reliance on foreign energy sources. Are the campaign promises simply running on empty?

Simply put, many energy executives don’t believe America can free itself from dependence on foreign oil.

“We do not have the resource base to be energy independent,” Exxon Mobil Corp. chairman Lee Raymond said in a recent speech. “We simply cannot avoid significant reliance on oil and gas from the Middle East.”

Someone forgot to tell that to President Bush and John Kerry.

As have legions of politicians before them, both Bush and Kerry are holding out the promise of loosening the grip that foreign oil producers have on the USA. Kerry talks of independence, Bush talks of more domestic reliance.

“Together, we’ll make an America that is energy independent,” Kerry said last spring in Seattle.

And Bush, earlier this month in Columbus, Ohio, sang a similar tune: “To make sure our economy remains strong and people can find work in America, we must become less dependent on foreign sources of energy.”

Energy experts dismiss such talk as little more than empty campaign promises that are not backed up with tough policy changes needed to make a significant difference.

“You need to understand that when they discuss energy independence it’s a rhetorical gimmick,” says Paul Roberts, the author of the book The End of Oil.

“It sounds good, but the truth is there is no such thing as energy independence for a country that uses as much oil as we do in the United States,” Roberts adds. “They’ve been saying it since Nixon’s time. You have to say it. It’s like mom and apple pie.”

Because the political penalty for advocating real solutions is so high, neither candidate in this presidential race is willing to get serious, says Philip Verleger, an energy economist and senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to think that any politician that’s currently running for president or who might contemplate running for president in the next eight to 12 years would be able to advocate the steps necessary to lessen our dependence,” Verleger says. Among those steps: raising gasoline taxes to cut consumption.

Consider a few facts from the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Energy Department:

• Last year, the United States consumed an average of 20 million barrels of oil and natural gas per day, or 7.3 billion barrels per year.

• About 56% of the oil used in the United States is imported.

• In 2003, the United States produced about 7.8 million barrels of oil and natural gas per day, or about 2.9 billion barrels per year.

• U.S. oil reserves (including the Gulf of Mexico) total 22.7 billion barrels, which would last less than eight years at today’s rates of consumption and imports.

• Gasoline for cars and light trucks accounts for about 45% of U.S. oil consumption.

So will the next president make any difference in reducing foreign oil dependence?

Both candidates have detailed plans, drawn with an eye toward politics. For example, each calls for increased use of ethanol as a motor fuel, an important issue in the farm belt where the corn used to produce ethanol is a key crop. And Kerry, a strong advocate in the Senate for more stringent automobile fuel economy standards, has softened that position in a presidential campaign where Michigan with its auto industry voters is a battleground.

On a number of energy positions, the candidates aren’t that far apart. Both would offer tax incentives to stimulate the use of hybrid vehicles and both seek to accelerate development of fuel-cell-powered cars that use hydrogen. Bush puts more emphasis on increasing the production of domestic supplies of oil. He favors opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil rigs while Kerry does not. Kerry’s strategy focuses more on cutting demand.

Some experts say that neither candidate’s strategy would make a dent in the U.S. oil problem.

“I look at both their policies and neither one of them is really dealing with the problem,” Verleger says. “There’s nothing serious here.”

The quick solutions to the oil issue wouldn’t likely be popular with voters. “If you doubled the price of gasoline (by raising federal taxes) that would get you something like a three to five million barrels a day reduction over four or five years,” Verleger says. “That’s a big chunk,” he adds, but “it’s become the third rail of politics.”

Automobiles are the key, Roberts agrees. Strict fuel economy standards achievable with hybrids, plus alternative fuels such as ethanol from more cost-effective crops than corn, would make a substantial difference relatively quickly.

But Roberts isn’t holding his breath for that kind of debate in a presidential campaign.

“Whenever voters hear energy policy they think they are going to have to drive a small car, live in a cold house and live like a European,” he says. “Energy is not something that wins many votes, but it can sure lose you votes.”

Comparing the candidates on energy policy
  George W. Bush John Kerry
Their plans Increase domestic oil production in such areas as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Remove obstacles to new refinery construction. Provide a $4,000 tax credit for purchasers of efficient vehicles like hybrid gas-electric cars. Expand use of ethanol and biodiesel fuels. Push initiative to develop hydrogen technologies including fuel cells for vehicles. Accelerate use of alternative fuels including ethanol and biodiesel. Establish tax credits for consumers and manufacturers to increase use of hybrid vehicles. Increase mileage standards for gasoline vehicles. Fund research into hydrogen technology. Pressure OPEC nations to increase supply.
Their records Shortly after taking office, produced a massive energy plan with scores of recommendations including expanding domestic drilling in ANWR and on public lands in the West, and tax credits for hybrid cars. Congress has rejected legislation based on the report. The administration has, however, accelerated energy production on Western public lands through administrative actions and pushed for more drilling off the coast of California. It adopted a modest increase in mileage requirements for SUVs and light trucks. Opposed administration-backed energy bill. Voted for measures to spur hydrogen-powered vehicles and urge the president to lessen dependence on foreign oil. Voted against drilling in ANWR. Voted for extending ethanol tax credits. Supported raising fleet average mileage standards to 36 miles per gallon by 2015.
In their own words “We need more energy production close to home. We need to produce in our own country and we need to encourage exploration in our own hemisphere so we’re less dependent on other parts of the world.” – October 2004 speech in Columbus, Ohio “We can live in an America that is energy independent. We can live in an America that runs on the cars of the future that we only have to fill up once a month, not every week. We can live in an America that invests in new technology that will make us energy independent and provide good paying jobs for every American.” – Radio address to the nation, May 2004
Source: USA TODAY research