The Myth of Energy Independence

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Tompkins Weekly 01/21/2013

By David F. Slottje

“Energy independence” means different things to different people. Until recently, most people—that is, most “persons” who are not corporations—defined energy independence to mean U.S. production of enough domestic oil that we are not dependent on other nations for our energy needs.

But the “persons” who are oil and gas corporations don’t use the same dictionaries that real persons do; instead, they pay PR firms and lobbyists to redefine words and reframe issues in a manner calculated to enhance the industry’s already-bloated profits.

When they needed to justify why they should be allowed to drill in wildlife refuges and off the U.S. coasts, the fossil fuel purveyors wrapped their disdain for all things protective of the environment in the American flag, insisting that patriotism dictated that they be allowed to slash and despoil the earth, more or less wherever and however they wished, supposedly so that American consumers and business would have reliable access to reasonably-priced sources of energy for domestic use. But the oil and gas corporations know no national allegiance, and it turns out they don’t care a whit whether U.S. users have reliable access to reasonably-priced energy sources. All they really care about is where they can get the highest price for the planet-killing energy source they sell.

Working with many of the same PR firms which previously developed cigarettes-are-safe campaigns for tobacco companies, the fossil fuel companies have spent huge sums to convince the public and our political leaders that (1) energy independence really means producing enough oil and gas so that we export more to our trading partners than we import, and (2) pursuit of the (redefined) energy independence goal is so critical that it trumps domestic or planet-wide concerns about climate change, shortages of freshwater resources, and anything involving protection of the planet.

Fracking is a process that uses dozens of potentially harmful, undisclosed chemicals, and millions of gallons of fresh water (per frack) injected into horizontal drilled wellheads. Fracking has pushed the domestic price of natural gas so low that producers are looking to foreign markets to boost profit margins.

Corporations are rushing to use their new definition of energy independence to justify exploitation, by fracking, of large shale-gas and shale-oil reserves throughout the U.S. But before the politicians embrace this notion, they must examine more closely the potential for harm to health and the environment, and the dragging impact that rising energy costs for both consumers and manufacturers will have on our economy.

What does the pursuit of this new definition of energy independence mean for Americans? It means continued use of billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, and the despoiling of trillions of gallons of water resources—which are destined to diminish from overuse and climate change —necessary to extract them.

It means potentially devastating impacts on local economies and resources from fracking operations, in the form of more air and water pollution and public health and infrastructure costs. And it means continuing to prime the pump of climate change.

The current energy system is a non-sustainable, wasteful tradeoff among energy, agriculture, manufacturing and human need for our scarce water resources.

We must pursue policies that address the energy challenges before us in a financially sound, effective and sustainable manner. The American Clean Energy Agenda (ACEA), proposed by over 100 grassroots organizations with a total of two million members, provides such a framework.

The ACEA envisions an electricity generation mix comprised of technologies that: are affordable and have the greatest potential to decrease in cost over time; use and consume the least amount of water; generate the least pollution; effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and maintain grid reliability.

Applying these criteria will result in a diversified, decentralized electric grid that is more efficient, clean, affordable and sustainable than the current system.

We must prioritize and incentivize carbon-free renewables and energy efficient technologies. We must drastically reduce or eliminate the tradeoffs between competing interests for scarce water resources. And we must become a world leader in meeting the challenge of climate change. The American Clean Energy Agenda offers the path forward.

It is past time for the American people (real persons, that is) to take responsibility for formulation of an American energy policy away from the corporate “persons” who make money selling that energy to us. They do not have our interests at heart.

It is time for a forthright public discussion about what energy independence really means, and how to enact an energy policy that will free us from foreign entanglements and safeguard our health, water and environment.

For more information about the American Clean Energy Agenda visit For more information about the Community Environmental Defense Council visit

David F. Slottje is executive director of and senior attorney at Community Environmental Defense Council Inc., a public interest environmental law firm based in Ithaca.


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