POLITICS

Biden says the Ukraine crisis shows why the U.S. must become energy independent. Is that possible?

What does "energy independent" mean? Would this be for the transportation sector or America's power grid – or both? And is it even possible?

  • The U.S. power grid is close to self sufficiency. It's the transportation sector that's more volatile.
  • The U.S. imported nearly 700,000 barrels per day of crude oil and refined petroleum products from Russia last year.
  • In 2019 and 2020, the U.S. exported more primary energy (energy in its raw form) than it imported.

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s announcement earlier this week that the U.S. will ban oil and other energy imports from Russia in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine also carried a solemn message for Americans.

“This crisis is a stark reminder,” Biden said Tuesday from the White House’s Roosevelt Room. “To protect our economy over the long term, we need to become energy independent.”

But what does "energy independent" mean? Would this be for the transportation sector or America's power grid – or both? And is it even possible?

Biden predicted that banning energy imports from Russia would deal a powerful blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war machine. But he also warned that it would likely drive gas prices even higher in the United States, which he said should motivate the U.S. to accelerate the transition to clean energy.

“If we do what we can, it will mean that no one has to worry about the price at the gas pump in the future,” he said. “That’ll mean tyrants like Putin won’t be able to use fossil fuels as weapons against other nations.”

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The U.S. has the capacity and the resources to become energy independent by the end of the decade, said Heather Reams, president of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a right-leaning energy advocacy group.

That's if the Biden administration reverses course and permits fossil fuels, namely natural gas, to be a major part of the mix to power the nation's electric grid. Try pursuing a path based primarily on renewables, such as wind and solar, and it'll be decades before the country can be fully self-sufficient, she said.

"We have tons of it (natural gas) here in the United States. We have an ability to frack and have more output. We also have the infrastructure to be able to move it throughout the country. We're not relying on additional transmission lines or pipelines," she said. "We can start to address these issues with natural gas right now.”

President Joe Biden says rising gas prices triggered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine are a reminder that the U.S. needs to become energy independent.

But would Biden sacrifice his ambitious goal of cutting greenhouse gas levels to half of what they were in 2005, a pledge that requires the U.S. wean itself off fossil fuels? And how can he dramatically ramp up electric vehicle usage when Congress hasn't been willing to pass his Build Back Better plan, which would spend billions to expand a cleaner transportation system?

Power grid versus transportation sector

The U.S. power grid is close to self sufficiency. It's the transportation sector that's more volatile because Americans are still relying on foreign countries for much of their fuel.

In 2021, the United States imported about 8.47 million barrels per day of petroleum (most of that crude oil) from 73 countries. Canada provided about half, but the U.S. also imported hundreds of thousands of barrels from countries that currently have poor relations with the U.S., including Russia (which provided about 8%) and Saudi Arabia (about 5%), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The oil crisis that's been created by Russia's war on Ukraine has been framed as a consumer issue with soaring gas prices. But Robbie Diamond, founder and CEO of Securing America’s Future Energy, which advocates for reducing U.S. dependency on oil, said it's a national security issue.

"So we should be (aiming) for energy security, and that is about producing as much energy we can, diversifying energy in our transportation sector so we're not held hostage (to oil), and  trying to create that energy from as many stable parts of the world who hopefully share our values so that we have less of these crises and spikes," he said.

Banning Russian oil while trying to cut carbon emissions

The order that Biden announced on Tuesday bans the import of Russian oil, liquefied natural gas and coal to the United States, bars new U.S. investment in Russia’s energy sector and prohibits Americans from financing or enabling foreign companies that are making investments to produce energy in Russia.

The U.S. imported nearly 700,000 barrels per day of crude oil and refined petroleum products from Russia last year, the White House said. Banning them would deprive Russia of billions of dollars in revenues from U.S. drivers and consumers annually.

Halting U.S. investment in Russia’s energy sector would ensure that American companies and investors aren’t underwriting Putin’s efforts to expand energy production inside Russia.

Biden hasn't released a detailed plan about how he would make the U.S. energy independent, but he has committed to dramatically cutting carbon emissions by 50% to 52% by 2030.

Biden announces ban on Russian oil as a strike against 'Putin and his war machine'

Easing environmental regulations or pulling back on clean energy investment won't lower energy prices, he said during Tuesday's announcement. But transforming the economy to run on electric vehicles powered by clean energy, along with tax credits to help Americans winterize their homes and use less energy, will help, he said.

"If we do what we can," he said, "it will mean that no one has to worry about the price at the gas pump in the future."

GAS PRICES ARE UP: What can Biden do to lower costs at the pump amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine?

What does 'energy independent' mean?

Politicians often talk about the need for the U.S. to be energy dependent but seldom define exactly what that means.

If the definition is producing enough energy domestically so that Americans no longer have to buy it from the rest of the world, by some measures the U.S. has already crossed that threshold.

Up to the early 1950s, the United States imported relatively small amounts of energy from foreign sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In the mid-‘50s, the U.S. began to import greater amounts of crude oil and petroleum products, such as gasoline and distillate fuels, to fill the gap between petroleum consumption and domestic production.

But over time that trend reversed.

In 2019 and 2020, the U.S. exported more primary energy (energy in its raw form) than it imported – the first time that had happened since 1952, the agency said.

Jennifer Quinn, of Needham, Mass., fills her SUV at a gas station Monday, March 7, 2022, in Needham.

Through the first 11 months of 2021, the U.S. also exported roughly 17% more energy than it imported, the agency said.

Even so, record-high gas prices have again prompted calls in Washington for the U.S. to become energy independent. 

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What about the thousands of drilling leases oil companies are sitting on?

There are currently more than 9,100 leases the federal government has approved that oil companies have yet to drill on as well as another 4,600 that are pending review, according to the federal Bureau of Land Management.

But oil companies say it's not as simple as turning on a spigot on and boosting production. The head of the industry's chief lobbying group said it takes time and money to determine whether wells should be dug. 

“Just because you have a lease doesn’t mean there’s actually oil and gas in that lease, and there has to be a lot of development that occurs between the leasing and then ultimately permitting for that acreage to be productive,” Mike Sommers, chef executive officer of the American Petroleum Institute, told Bloomberg News this week

Crew working on  an oil rig.

Reams says criticism that oil companies are sitting on many leases is "a fair point." But she said "this consistent war on fossil fuels" by the Biden administration has made the petroleum industry naturally gun-shy to spend significant resources to ramp up production.

"Whether it's the Keystone pipeline, reducing the ability for permitting, for the leasing on federal lands, there's just a number of ways that it's constantly hit at fossil fuels, particularly natural gas," she said. "So it sends a signal to the markets that there is not certainty within the government. If you're in that business, why would you (invest) with the amount of risk you're talking about?"

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Diamond, with SAFE, said he'd like to see the Biden administration release more oil from the strategic petroleum reserves, while also invoking the Defense Production Act to ramp production on those leases that have yet to produce. He predicts those wells could generate as many as 1 million barrels a day.

That would be a short-term step while the country develops other transportation fuels.

"We can’t only get into a 'drill baby drill' scenario, because drilling is only one part of the solution," he said.

OIL FROM RUSSIA:How much oil does the US buy from Russia? Not much, but gas prices are rising amid Ukraine invasion

Mining challenges impede energy independence

Environmental restrictions on mining are complicating Biden's own efforts to become energy independent while decarbonizing the economy.

Precious and rare earth metals needed to electrify America's transportation network and expand power storage and transmission capabilities for renewable sources such as wind and solar are so difficult and expansive to extract that the country relies on geopolitical adversaries for them.

In 2019, the U.S. imported $2.2 billion in precious metals and stones, such as platinum.

Reams mentioned mines in Arizona and Minnesota that have been held up for years by environmental reviews that have yet to extract an ounce of minerals due to "insane" permitting regulations.

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Can other forms of energy make a difference in the short run?

Fossil fuels – coal, natural gas, petroleum and other gases – account for about 61% of electricity generation in the U.S. The rest comes from nuclear energy (19%) and renewable energy sources (20%).

Wind and solar are growing in market share but still fairly nascent industries that rely on transmission and storage technology still being developed. Their future expansion is tied very much to how fast those advances takes place.

Nuclear power, generated by 94 commercial reactors at 56 plants scattered across 28 states, provides nearly 20% of the nation's electricity, according to government figures. That makes nuclear the largest single supplier of carbon-free energy in the U.S.

But economic factors, mainly from the production of cheap natural gas and increasingly affordable renewable sources, are slowly driving nuclear power out of business. In addition, diminished demand has hurt profitability, as have rising operating costs, analysts say.

Only one new nuclear power plant has come online in the United States since 2010: The Watts Bar Unit 2 in Tennessee, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Two more reactors are under construction in Georgia, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But several reactors have been mothballed since 2013, while several more are slated to retire over the next seven years. Other are expected to close in the next few years if they do not receive new financial support, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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