The Magazine

The 'Dependence on Foreign Oil' Canard

The worst justification yet for Obama's energy plan.

Jun 22, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 38 • By JEFF BERGNER
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Even if it were energy independent, moreover, the United States would maintain a deep interest in the ungoverned or weakly governed territories in the broader Middle East. We know that such territories serve as potential bases for terrorism against the West. Think about it: The United States is gradually getting out of Iraq, which produces more than 2 million barrels of oil daily, and further into Afghanistan and Pakistan, which produce no oil at all. One would have to be detached from reality to suppose that American interests in Iraq turn on oil, especially in light of our current policies--and even more to imagine that Islamic fundamentalists would warm up to an America that ceased to have any interest in Middle East oil.

The fact is that large oil revenues are not necessarily correlated with U.S. security concerns, whether nuclear proliferation, support for terrorism, or despotic governance. Iran possesses both oil and a nuclear program. North Korea has a nuclear program but no oil. Libya has oil, but has given up its weapons of mass destruction. Venezuela has oil, but no nuclear program. And Cuba has neither oil nor a nuclear program, but a despotic government.

At the moment, the question of reliance on foreign oil is largely academic in any event. No matter what steps we take today, we will not be able to reduce significantly our reliance on foreign oil for at least a decade. Short of a cataclysmic economic depression which drives demand for oil radically downward, we will remain highly dependent on foreign oil for many years to come. There is nothing wrong with aiming to reduce that dependence, but it is an illusion to suppose that our security interests will change appreciably if we do.

Imposing a massive new tax on energy through a cap and trade program is bad economic policy. Imposing such a tax now, while the economy is struggling through a persistent recession, would be singularly ill-considered. Such a tax would harm U.S. economic security far more than dependence on foreign energy suppliers could possibly hurt us. It is clear that American government officials would be pleased to have a brand new source of tax revenue from cap and trade; but the drag on the economy from higher energy prices would be every bit as severe whether the revenues were sent abroad, paid to the federal government, or incinerated. Fear of potential price increases is simply not a good reason to impose actual price increases on American businesses and the American people.

The economic arguments for cap and trade are non-existent. The environmental arguments for cap and trade, to be polite, are dubious. None of these arguments is strengthened by a dressed up nativism or far-fetched scenarios masquerading as national security concerns. This is all the more so since, if energy independence were truly our goal, a cap and trade system would be the least sensible way to achieve it.

Jeff Bergner is a visiting professor at Christopher Newport University. He previously served as staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and assistant secretary of state.