A path to independence

Every president since Richard Nixon has embraced the goal of energy independence for the United States. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley has prepared a plan for actually achieving that goal by 2030. It’s likely that elements of the plan are overly ambitious, or could be implemented only at unacceptable economic or environmental costs. But even if only some of Merkley’s proposals could be put in motion, the freshman Democrat has shown that oil imports can be significantly reduced — with attendant reductions in the trade imbalances and geopolitical risks that accompany the nation’s thirst for foreign oil.

According to Merkley’s figures, 70 percent of the United States’ imported oil comes from outside North America. The top four suppliers of that oil are Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Venezuela and Iraq — countries that are repressive, unstable, hostile or all three. The federal Energy Information Administration projects imports of 8.36 million barrels of oil a day by 2030. Merkley believes that with an aggressive campaign to make the nation’s transportation system more efficient and less reliant on oil, the need for most petroleum imports can be eliminated — including all imports from outside North America.

Merkley’s focus on efficiency is especially appealing. Many gains in efficiency can be achieved without the development of new technologies or the installation of costly new energy infrastructures. For instance, trucks burn a gallon of fuel to move a ton of freight 155 miles. Trains use a gallon of fuel to move the same ton of freight 413 miles. For barges, it’s 576 ton-miles per gallon. Making rail and barge transport available to more shippers, and encouraging them to make the switch, could save 1.75 million barrels of oil a day, Merkley estimates.