The Uses of Energy Independence

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 11:30 AM
Congressional Room B (Omni Shoreham)
Victor Robert McFarland, University of Missouri
“Energy independence” – the promise of freeing the United States from reliance on foreign oil – has been a major theme in American politics since the 1970s. The United States has continued to import oil from abroad, however, leading many analysts to dismiss energy independence as empty rhetoric. This paper looks beyond such dismissals to examine the work that energy independence has performed in American politics and culture. First, energy independence promised to overcome the bitter divisions that plagued the debate on energy policy during the 1970s, rising above the parochial interests of oil producers and consumers to serve a unified national interest. This idea was particularly attractive for smaller oil companies reliant on domestic production, who wanted protection from cheaper foreign oil and justified the costs of such protection as a necessary price to pay for greater independence. Second, energy independence transformed energy policy from a domestic issue into a national security issue, allowing U.S. presidents like Nixon, Ford, and Carter to expand their executive power and claim leadership over energy issues while sidelining Congress, the states, and local governments. Third, plans for energy independence were a signaling device in foreign policy. U.S. officials hoped that their public commitment to energy independence would act as a warning to oil exporters like Saudi Arabia, convincing them to increase production (and thus reduce prices) before the United States eliminated its need for oil imports altogether. Finally, during an era of rising concern about globalization, trade deficits, and the loss of U.S. jobs, the language of energy independence allowed U.S. leaders to stress their economic nationalism while avoiding a trade war with other industrialized nations like Japan and West Germany. These political and cultural uses of energy independence helped ensure the concept’s popularity despite the impracticality of eliminating all foreign oil imports.
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