America's Freedom Requires Energy Independence

As we celebrate the Fourth of July, it's worthwhile to ask if, more than 200 years after the country's founding, the United States is truly independent. Or is our reliance on oil compromising our nation's freedom?

Let's face facts: We are addicted to oil. Although the United States has just five percent of the world's population, we consume 25 percent of the world's oil. And each year our dependence on imported petroleum becomes greater. While U.S. energy consumption increased 27 percent since the OPEC embargo of 1973, our oil imports grew 86 percent during that same time period. Today we import about 55 percent of all the oil we use; if our consumption patterns don't change, in 20 years we will depend on other countries for 70 percent of our oil, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Like any addiction, our addiction to oil is dangerous. It keeps us weak, subject to the slightest wobble or shake in world oil prices.

Our oil dependence makes the U.S. economy vulnerable to events in distant, politically unstable nations. A political controversy in Venezuela or restlessness in Nigeria's volatile Delta region can spike oil prices, leading to cost increases in everything from heating oil to your car's gasoline to the price of ordinary consumer goods. By keeping the United States tethered to events beyond our control, oil dependence unsettles our economy, which values stability above all else. Our oil addiction jeopardizes prosperity.

Oil dependence also undermines national security. It involves the United States in reckless adventures and keeps us chained to unsavory regimes. For example, the U.S. is spending nearly $100 million to guard oil pipelines in Colombia, a nation in the midst of a 40-year-old civil war. And of course our oil dependence shackles us to the Saudi monarchy, no friend of democracy or liberty.

Saudi Arabia is the second largest source of our imported oil, and we continue to rely on their petroleum even though, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, individuals and charities in Saudi Arabia are key financiers of al-Qaeda. Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to the problem for years, and so have U.S. officials. This shouldn't be too surprising: After all, junkies rarely challenge their dealers.

Then there is the recent invasion of Iraq. It is unquestionably a good thing that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. But that should not obscure the point that if broccoli were the No. 1 export from the Middle East, we never would have attacked Iraq. The question we need to ask ourselves is: Does oil dependence make us more safe, or less?

Some people who agree that our oil dependence is dangerous argue that this is why we should open up drilling in the Alaska wilderness or off the Gulf Coast. But we can't drill ourselves out of this mess. Geologists -- including those who work for the oil companies -- agree that within this decade we will reach global peak oil production, meaning that from then on world oil supplies will be shrinking. If we are bound to run out of oil anyway, then why not act to break free from it sooner than later?

Fortunately, breaking our addiction to oil is not rocket science. Our cars and trucks guzzle 40 percent of all the oil we use, yet today fuel efficiency is at its lowest point in 22 years. By dramatically increasing the fuel economy of our cars, we can take a huge step toward beating the petroleum addiction.

Workable alternatives to the carbon economy exist, but the U.S. auto manufacturers have recklessly refused to take advantage of them. If the carmakers were to put off-the-shelf technologies in their vehicles, they could increase average fuel efficiency to 40 mpg. If they converted their entire fleets to gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles, they could give drivers 60 mpg. But right now the only option for a patriotic American seeking to break our oil addiction and improve U.S. national security is a Japanese hybrid car.

This is inexcusable. It is long past time for elected officials, the major U.S. automakers, and citizens groups to come together to break our oil addiction. Until we do so, the idea of American independence will be only a holiday slogan.

Jason Mark directs the Clean Car Campaign at Global Exchange, an international human rights group.


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