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Saudis Believe Energy Independence is Nonsense -- But Why Must America Agree?

September 7th 2009

Arab Topics - Faisal
Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal

Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, former ambassador to the United States, has a suggestion for America: drop this nonsense called energy independence. In a strongly-worded essay in Foreign Policy magazine, which coincides with the 150th anniversary of Edwin Drake’s discovery of oil in the United States, Turki lambastes American politicians for invoking energy independence, which “is now as essential as baby-kissing,” accusing them of “demagoguery.” For him, energy independence is “political posturing at its worst—a concept that is unrealistic, misguided, and ultimately harmful to energy-producing and consuming countries alike.” “Like it or not,” Turki concludes, “the fates of the United States and Saudi Arabia are connected and will remain so for decades to come.” (See a video clip here.)

We’ve heard these lines before each time the United States made progress toward lessening its dependence on oil. In February, for example, Ali al-Naimi, the Saudi oil minister, warned of a “nightmare scenario” if consuming countries made progress in the development of alternative fuels. A decade ago, his predecessor, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, called technology “the real enemy for OPEC.” This is understandable. After all, no pusher wants to see his client circling around a rehab clinic. For Saudi Arabia, a world where oil plays a marginal role is the nightmarish materialization of the Saudi saying, “My father rode a camel, I drive a car, my son flies a jet plane, his son will ride a camel.”

More troubling is the parade of prominent Americans who deride the notion of energy independence, viewing it as jingoistic, unsophisticated, naive and misleading. One cannot doubt the patriotism of former CIA director John Deutch, who said “energy independence is not a constructive idea,” or former secretary of defense and energy James Schlesinger, who called it a “forlorn hope,” or Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Yergin who referred to it as “pipe dream,” or Andy Grove, former chairman of Intel, who called the concept “a faulty goal,” or even the members of the Council on Foreign Relations energy security task force who went so far as to accuse those promoting energy independence of “doing the nation a disservice.” But just like Prince Turki, all of those distinguished Americans misunderstand what energy independence really is. As a result, they underestimate our ability to get there.

Contrary to popular conception, energy independence does not mean self-sufficiency. It doesn’t mean not importing any oil or walling ourselves off from the global market. Energy independence is not a function of the amount of oil we consume or import. Rather, energy independence means turning oil from a strategic commodity second to none—one that underlies the global economy and determines the course of world affairs—into just another commodity to trade.

Oil’s strategic status stems from its virtual monopoly over fuel for transportation, which in turn underlies our entire way of life. Worldwide, 95 percent of our transportation energy is petroleum-based. Our cars, trucks planes and ships can run on nothing but petroleum. This is why the much-touted policies that aim to either increase oil supply through domestic drilling or decrease its use by boosting fuel efficiency, while helpful, are insufficient as they do not address the factor that gives oil its strategic status: the petroleum-only vehicle.

Energy independence thus requires breaking the virtual monopoly of oil over transportation fuels, and this can only be done via competition in the transportation fuel sector. (Think about our electricity sector, where a variety of competing energy sources—coal, natural gas, nuclear, solar and wind—can contribute to the grid.) If our cars and trucks were able to run on other fuels in addition to those refined from petroleum, Saudi Arabia’s oil would have to compete over the drivers’ wallet against utility companies, alternative liquid fuels producers and natural gas suppliers. But as long as our cars are gasoline-only, oil remains the only game in town, which is exactly what Saudi Arabia wants.

A few types of vehicle technologies allow us to break oil’s monopoly. The first, and most affordable, is the flex-fuel vehicle that can run on any combination of gasoline and alcohol (alcohol does not mean just ethanol, and ethanol does not mean just corn). It costs an extra $100 per new car to make a regular car flex-fuel. All it takes is a fuel sensor and a corrosion-resistant fuel line. An Open Fuel Standard ensuring that every new car sold in the United States be flex-fuel would not only give rise to an industry of alternative fuels and the associated refueling infrastructure, but it would also drive foreign automakers to add fuel flexibility to all of their models, effectively making it an international standard.

Electricity is another transportation fuel that can compete against oil. It is cheap, largely clean, domestically produced and can be made from multiple sources. Its refueling infrastructure is widely available. All that is needed for an electric car to connect to the grid is an extension cord. Most automakers have already committed to produce models of limited-range pure electric vehicles (EV) or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV). The latter allow drivers to travel on stored electric power for the first 20-40 miles, after which the car keeps running on the liquid fuel in the tank, providing the standard 200-400 mile range. For the 50 percent of Americans who drive 25 miles per day or less, shifting from barrels to electrons would make the visit to the local gas station a rarity. If all of those Americans owned PHEVs, a population the size of New York, Florida and Pennsylvania combined would be off oil most days of the year. A PHEV would normally drive 100-150 miles per gallon of gasoline. If it is also made as flex-fuel and fueled with a blend of 80 percent alcohol and 20 percent gasoline, oil economy could reach over 500 miles per gallon of gasoline.

These technologies are either at or few years away from commercialization. If we only understood energy independence properly and took the relevant measures to open the transportation fuel market to competition, oil would be far less central to the world economy than it is today. If we ensure that new cars are platforms on which fuels can compete rather than perpetuate the petroleum standard, then Prince Turki’s descendants, on the 200th anniversary of Drake’s discovery, will be more likely to ride camels than private jets. No wonder he wants us to think otherwise.

Cutting Edge energy contributor Gal Luft is executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS) and publisher of the Journal of Energy Security. He also is a co-author of “Energy Security Challenges for the 21st Century.” 


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