Is THIS the time the U.S. kicks its foreign oil habit?

By Joshua Gardner

As Joseph Lazzaro at AOL’s Daily Finance has noted, perhaps the biggest energy policy mistake the United States made in the 20th century was the failure to wean the country off oil – particularly imported oil – as a transportation fuel. The recent unrest in Egypt and across the Middle East serves as a reminder to Americans that the system that sends roughly two million barrels of crude oil a day from the Middle East to the United States is complex to say the least.

President Obama, in his speech last night at Georgetown University, seems intent on being the president who (after refrains from Nixon onward to kick the oil habit) finally reduced our dependence on foreign sources of oil. Speaking in front of a banner that read “Winning the Future”, the president set a new goal to reduce American oil imports by one-third over the next decade.

Mr. Obama’s response comes amid rising oil prices, the turmoil in the Middle East and a growing chorus of criticism from Congress that he has choked off domestic oil exploration. Among the president’s proposals:

  • Wider use of natural gas, including incentives to use it to fuel fleet vehicles such as city buses
  • Greater production of biofuels, including the establishment of at least four commercial scale refineries producing cellulosic ethanol or advanced biofuels within the next two years
  • Establish a higher fuel-efficiency standard for heavy trucks, just as he did for passenger vehicles early in his administration
  • Urge oil companies to make greater use of the federal leases both onshore and offshore to prop up domestic oil output (the oil industry and GOP lawmakers have been loudly complaining about delays in the permitting of offshore drilling in recent months)
  • Encouraging the spread of electric cars and making gas-powered vehicles more efficient

He also added his “clean energy standard”, a program unveiled during his State of the Union to promote less polluting forms of electricity generation, even though – as some critics have noted – it has nothing to do with oil imports. His goal, by 2035, is to double the amount of electricity derived from renewable and nuclear energy, combined cycle natural gas and coal plants equipped with carbon capture technology. This promises to be a key campaign topic for Mr. Obama, who will emphasize its potential to attract investors to a growing market for wind, solar, nuclear and other energy technologies.

But critics have already dismissed his speech as just that – a political move that will not appropriately address the real issues. Environmental groups have criticized the president for supporting nuclear power, backing the oil industry and failing to use his speech to defend the United States EPA’s greenhouse gas rules against Republican attacks. Industry groups and Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have attacked him for limiting opportunities for oil drillers, promoting clean energy mandates and politicizing the nation’s energy troubles.

Mr. Obama has made energy a priority since taking office, but in those two years he has seen the major elements of his energy and climate change strategy undone by a succession of economic, political, technical and natural disasters. The economic issues, in particular, have greatly dampened the desire of our government to address issues that do not end the ongoing recession. Energy and climate change, then, become an afterthought despite the many claims that addressing climate change through renewable energy will create jobs and boost a flagging economy.

The past decade has seen growing support – not only in the U.S. government, but among business leaders and the general public – for decisive action to address serious, energy-related threats to the environment and to America’s national and economic security. As a result, prospects for progress on problems like global warming and American dependence on oil now seem more promising than they have in over a decade. While on the surface the politics of polarization lead to a sense of paralysis, maybe this in indeed the perfect storm for progress. According to Mike Eckhart, ACORE’s founding president and now managing director and head of environmental markets an sustainability at Citigroup, this is in fact the right make up for progress in congress.