In a campaign in which energy was almost entirely ignored, our unlikely president-elect vows that “the Trump Administration will make America energy independent,” echoing his campaign promises to work on behalf of domestic fossil fuel producers by increasing oil leases on public lands, shredding environmental and health regulations, rejecting the Paris Climate Action Plan, and boosting the flailing coal industry. Or as Donald Trump put it in May, “Every dollar of energy we don’t explore here is a dollar of energy that makes someone else rich over there.”
Energy independence is not a new idea. The term has been a part of the American political lexicon for over 40 years, invoked in a bipartisan fashion by every president since Richard Nixon. Trump, though, has completely inverted its meaning, turning what was coined as a plea on behalf of America’s energy consumers into one of behalf if its energy producers.
By returning to the phrase’s origins, we can better understand why Trump is offering an unhelpful prescription for our energy future—and why we should work to solve today’s energy problems and not those of the early 1970s.
Entering the 1970s, the United States struggled to secure nearly every source of power it had depended on for decades.
Natural gas, whose price government policy had kept low throughout the 1960s, became increasingly expensive for lack of industry investment in new exploration.
The U.S. possessed abundant coal supplies, but new environmental legislation made dirtier Appalachian coal less acceptable than cleaner, but undeveloped, coal fields out west.
When it came to oil, domestic production had peaked in 1970 before slumping into a steady decline. By purchasing gas guzzling cars for longer commutes and installing new air conditioners across the suburbanizing south and west, Americans demanded more oil than domestic drillers could produce. In response, the U.S. more than doubled its oil imports between 1970 and 1973 alone. These imports came mostly from Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela, yet ever-larger volumes flowed from the Middle East.
In the early 1970s, the political power of these oil exporters was on the rise. OPEC nations sought both greater royalties and managerial influence in oil companies themselves. OPEC leaders also began threatening to cut off oil supplies as a foreign policy “weapon.”
By the beginning of 1973, fuel shortages began straining consumers. As a bitter winter forced American refineries to produce extra heating oil, JFK airport grounded planes, schools shut their doors to save heating costs, and federal officials proposed nationwide reductions in speed limits to conserve gasoline. In May, oil companies warned of coming rationing at service stations.
For Wilson, energy independence meant protecting consumers by bringing down prices and preventing vulnerability from what he called a “critical reliance” on imports. Wilson proposed creating a National Energy Authority, modeled on the Manhattan Project and inspired by NASA’s successful Apollo program, to use extraordinary powers to finance domestic energy production and provide relief for Americans struggling to fill their gas tanks or keep the lights on.
Through aggressive marketing, Wilson’s ideas quickly spread among America’s policymaking elite, from Richard Nixon’s White House staff to key members of Congress, corporate executives, and influential academics.
The idea took on new urgency in October when OPEC announced an embargo against the United States for supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War. Within a few months, the price of oil had quadrupled, bringing both recession and inflation as the spectacular quarter-century of postwar economic growth ground to a halt.
In response, Nixon picked up on Wilson’s language. In a special address, the president announced Project Independence “to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy sources.” Until he resigned the next summer, Nixon spoke publicly of energy independence dozens of times.
Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, made the idea one of the cornerstones of his 1975 State of the Union address and passing an Energy Independence Act consumed the remainder of his presidency. In his famous Malaise speech of 1979, Jimmy Carter described the loss of energy independence as central to American decline, blaming it for gas lines, unprecedented inflation, and faltering national security.
Yet today’s energy landscape looks very different than it did in the 1970s. Oil imports are at their lowest levels in over 30 years, having peaked more than a decade ago. Horizontal drilling techniques and hydraulic fracturing—fracking—have opened up vast quantities of domestic oil and gas easily tapped whenever prices rise. Petroleum exporting nations compete for global market share, unable to use oil as a geopolitical weapon.
For Wilson, “energy independence” was a plea on behalf of America’s energy consumers—a policy catchphrase meant to remove unprecedented vulnerability to the American fuel supply, not wall the country off from exports entirely.
When Donald Trump promises energy independence, it is a plea on behalf of America’s energy producers—repurposing an old phrase to service domestic fossil fuel companies seeking special, favorable treatment, like permission for more pipeline construction, fewer environmental constraints on drilling and reduced competition from carbon-free power.
Prices could rise in the future. We could decide that the environmental costs of producing certain fuels, like shale gas or tar sands oil, are simply too great to be permitted. Surging energy demand from industrializing nations could grow faster than global production. Political instability in large exporting states could pull large volumes quickly offline. In all likelihood, however, the U.S. will have reserve capacity for many years to weather fluctuations without descending into crisis or necessitating enforced energy self-sufficiency.
We have plenty of new energy problems to solve without confusing ourselves with outdated slogans. These problems, above all global warming, require us to focus not on energy independence but energy interdependence instead.