By now you probably have heard that Mitt Romney unveiled his energy plan this week. He calls it: “The Romney Plan For A Stronger Middle Class: ENERGY INDEPENDENCE.” So creative! He’s only the gazillionth politician since Nixon to tout energy independence. And he’s also the gazillionth to get it all wrong.
If there were any early questions about what was in the plan, Romney answered them when he chose Hobbs, New Mexico -- oil and gas country if there ever was one -- as the place where he’d reveal it. There, he basically dusted off the Sarah “Shut up and Drill” Palin neé Dick “Drill Baby Drill” Cheney plan and added a few charts to spice it up. The basic premise: Ease federal regulations and turn permitting over to the states to encourage more onshore and offshore drilling, which will encourage more domestic oil and gas production, which will lessen our reliance on foreign oil, bring energy costs down and provide a big bonanza for everyone except those scary folks over in the Middle East.
Romney does add a new twist. He’s not pushing for the U.S. to achieve energy independence solo. Instead, he’s invited Canada and Mexico to his little drill-fest (via pipelines like the Keystone XL) to make it North American energy independence. Romney apparently considers Mexican oil to be American even if he doesn’t extend the same courtesy to the Mexican people. He also must not be bothered by the fact that buying Canadian oil will ultimately support that nation’s publicly funded -- uh, yep, socialist -- health care system. (Wait! If this plan is meant to help the middle class, won’t the continent-wide scope also end up boosting up the North American middle class, and if so, aren’t we talking about a North American Union, of sorts, the very sort of thing Romney’s Tea Party base worries about?)
But what I’m really here to show you is this nifty chart -- made using Energy Information Administration figures -- which is enough to cast some doubt on the basic premise of the Romney plan. If we lived in a simple, linear world, then we could reasonably expect that the more oil we produced at home (and Canada and Mexico), then the less we’d buy from the big Persian Gulf oil producers. And we have been producing more oil, thanks mostly to the boom in North Dakota’s Bakken shale, not to mention the Niobrara in Colorado and, to a lesser extent, Wyoming. High prices have also encouraged a step up in production, with the help of CO2 flooding and other “enhancement” techniques, at older oil fields across the West and beyond. A drop in overall U.S. imports has coincided with the increased production (which can also be attributed to a drop in consumption, thanks to a sluggish economy).
However, as the chart shows, though imports from the Persian Gulf states decreased for a bit, they have then shot back up, even as oil is pumped out of the North Dakota ground faster than ever before. In fact, the graph shows that there's really little relation between domestic production and Gulf state imports -- the biggest influences on both are economic. The reasons are complicated, and are tied to geopolitical posturing and the wild web of global economics. Furthermore, all this extra production hasn’t done a lot to bring down prices at the pump, now, has it? So one of the purported big bonuses to the middle class just hasn’t and won’t materialize.
That’s my point: Simplistic approaches to energy policy aren’t going to work because the energy reality is complex. And Romney's plan for energy independence (even if it includes Canada and Mexico) is too simplistic for reality.
Recommended reads: I've written on this concept before. Brad Plumer did a nice breakdown of Romney's plan for the Washington Post. And Michael Levi wrote an excellent piece about the basic premises of Romney's plan before the plan came out for Foreign Policy magazine.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor for High Country News. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.
Image of a pumpjack in the Aneth oil field and graph courtesy of the author.