While the energy boom in the United States is increasing domestic access to oil and gas and growing exports of petroleum products, it is unlikely that this will translate into U.S. energy independence.
Factors beyond our control are likely to steer the U.S. away from independence. Some of these uncertainties include demand growth in emerging economies, future energy prices, and durable trade agreements, as well as the degree of policy intervention on climate change, water, and other societal impacts of fossil fuel use. The upsurge of tight oil, shale gas, other unconventional resources, and yet-to-be-discovered fossil fuels—in the United States and elsewhere—will only make the world more energy interdependent than ever before.
Setting politics aside, the technological push to develop different, difficult, and potentially more dangerous oil and gas resources is being driven by the unbridled power of the global marketplace. Petroleum products made from both U.S. oil and natural gas are extremely valuable and supplies to Asia, Europe, and elsewhere are on the rise. Pressure to ramp up liquefied natural gas exports is building. Direct sale of American crude oil to foreign markets could be the next energy foray.
With overall fossil fuel consumption currently flat or falling in America and Western Europe, growth in energy demand is in emerging economies. These burgeoning importers therefore are gaining influence in global energy markets. Exporting countries, including America, will increasingly reorient themselves to those markets. As such, the fossil fuel commodities produced domestically are not guaranteed to stay at home. The expanding array of fossil fuels is more likely to circumnavigate the globe. U.S. fossil fuel production could ultimately do more to trigger competition between global energy trade flows than fuel domestic independence.
If the ultimate goal is self-sufficiency, sovereignty, and security, the road to energy independence cannot be paved predominantly with fossil fuels. Energy efficiency and diversification into alternative renewable energy sources both need to play a far greater role on a worldwide scale.
Abundant fossil fuel supplies alone do not guarantee the United States and others energy independence. Just look at Saudi Arabia, Russia, and increasingly Canada. None of these countries have been able to isolate themselves from the world and avoid the economic and political struggles that oil and gas resource endowments bring.
Despite the hype and hubris, managing energy supplies will be an increasingly complex undertaking, one that needs to account for the externalities—climate change, water stresses, and various local impacts—that loom large. With the larger goal of international peace and security in mind, don’t be surprised if the United States continues to struggle with managing its energy bounty, whether it attains some measure of independence or not.