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David Nightingale: On Energy Independence

Let's look at the idea of Energy Independence, and the possibility of no further need for filling the coffers of sometimes unstable fuel-producing nations.

When some of us wince at the fracking ads that appear on TV, and the associated good life awaiting us, it's worth looking up actual data.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, abbreviated to EIA in the ubiquitous craze for acronyms, US IMPORTS of crude oil have indeed been dropping. In 2014 we imported 3.3 million units, as opposed to 4.3 million units six years ago. (The units are irrelevant -- it's the comparison that counts -- apples compared to apples. For the curious the units are actually "1000 barrels".) [Ref.1.]

For the 2014 figures these imports are mostly from Canada, with some from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Mexico, and a small amount from Russia.

But interestingly, we are also exporting oil. So the naive question is: WHY ARE WE EXPORTING AT ALL, WHEN WE COULD KEEP our petroleum, and thus begin to approach oil independence?

Now mankind has burned wood and coal for centuries, but around the 1900s we began to sell oil and gas. Although in the 1970s Congress actually made oil export illegal, there were exceptions for Canada and Mexico. Much of this import/export interchange goes by pipeline, but not all, as that dreadful oil train accident in Quebec [Lac-Megantec] in 2013 showed.

So, to get to actual numbers: Our EXPORTS of crude oil in 2014 were 1.5 million, as opposed to only 0.7 million half a dozen years ago.

Let's look also at the import data for another basic fossil fuel, Liquid Natural Gas or LNG. In 2014 we imported about 2.7 million (again, the units don't matter, although for gas they are actually units of 'million cubic feet'). These imports used to be larger. Just a few years back, in 2009 for example, we were importing 3.7 million. So we have indeed been reducing our imports in both gas and oil.

If one wants to get political about it, these trends have been occuring during the Obama administration. However, let's not go that political route; I believe that any administration would have tried to reduce our imports then.

At the same time, the fracking people (and indeed fracking is a method used for both oil and gas) might well say 'Great! Frack more and we can soon be independent!'

But there is money there. It is an inter-dependent world and we like exporting and trading.

As mentioned, years ago we used to supply oil and gas, and coal, to much of the world. Now, once again, we are becoming an exporter of fuels -- but they are all fossil fuels.

To this essayist, that's a direction that, despite earning billions, is of the wrong emphasis. Humanity's burning of oil and gas has already altered the world's climates -- and we are now seeing consequential extremes in world weather. Furthermore, the process of fracking is not only expensive, but tends to continue the pollution of both crust and aquifers. Would that we could remove the carbon dioxide, building up worldwide from the continued use of fossil fuels -- but such removal has not been feasible on the scale needed.

Until that cleaning happens -- and it may never -- consideration of the world's health is a more important question than money-making.

As a footnote, EIA data says that electricity generated by solar grew by 11% in 2014. My hope is it'll be higher still in 2015 and 2016.


1. US Energy Information Administration, for all data in this essay.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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