News & Reviews



Sep 25th 2008 at 5:29PM

How to Kick Our (Imported) Oil Habit - Autoline on Autoblog with John McElroy

There's a lot of talk about making the U.S. energy independent. Or getting off oil altogether. I guess anyone who believes it can easily be done has never taken the time to count how many millions of barrels of oil we import every day. Damn do we use a lot of oil!
Some say the country is in trouble because we don't have an energy policy. That's not true. We do have a policy. It doesn't have a grandiose name attached to it, but for decades now, with strong bi-partisan support, the U.S. has maintained very low gasoline taxes, has legislated cleaner fuels (which yields less fuel), and has put strict limits on drilling.

We seem to be saying that we don't want to use oil, but since we don't want to hurt the "little guy," we'll keep it as cheap as possible.

John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers. Follow the jump to continue reading this week's editorial.

That's not going to work anymore, and finally, with oil prices yo-yo-ing up and down, the public seems to be ready for a cold, hard-nosed energy policy. Saner voices talk in terms of achieving energy security, not energy independence. They talk about dropping oil imports from countries that represent a high political risk for America. And this is where the discussion really gets interesting.

First you've got to look at the numbers. The U.S. uses nearly 21 million barrels of oil and petroleum products every single day. About 58%, or 12 million barrels, is imported. About 40% of those imports, nearly 5 million barrels, come from OPEC countries. About 16%, or nearly 2 million barrels, comes from the Persian Gulf.

The first goal of any energy plan should be getting off Persian Gulf oil. It's arguably the most volatile part of the world. And the straits of Hormuz are a natural choke point to close the Gulf off, which makes us extremely vulnerable. But how do we come up with an extra 2 million barrels a day?

Well, we have three approaches we can take, and the good news is we're making progress on all three fronts.

First, is conservation. Americans are using less gasoline this year, but that's mainly due to a very weak economy and much higher gas prices. In other words, that decrease may not last. But in the next four years, new technology in cars and trucks-hybrids, plug-ins, diesels, you name it-is going make them a lot more efficient, and that will help a lot.

Second, is more domestic drilling. The U.S. has over 20 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. This doesn't include oil sands, or shale, or coal that could be converted to oil, which could bump that number up dramatically. More drilling isn't a solution, but it can stop the growth in oil imports.

Third, is alternative fuels. And this is where the most progress is being made. Say what you will about ethanol, but it's doing more to displace our use of oil than anything else out there. The U.S. is on track to produce 200 million barrels of ethanol for fuel this year, which is running well ahead of the goal we set for 2012.

Even more promising, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that cellulosic ethanol production for fuel could hit 4 million barrels a day by 2025.

That is a significant number. Of the nearly 21 million barrels of oil the U.S. uses every day, about 8.5 million barrels go into our cars and trucks. Cellulosic ethanol could get us nearly half-way towards replacing that. Throw in bio-diesel, coal-to-liquid, algae for fuel or other alternatives, and all of a sudden the goal of getting off imported oil, at least for our cars, is totally within our grasp.

I believe America could set a goal of getting off Persian Gulf oil within the decade, and getting off OPEC oil by 2025. And I believe most Americans would even support higher gas taxes to get there if the plan were presented to them this way.

We definitely have the ability and technology to do it. Now we need the will.

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