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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Kerry and Bush Mislead Voters With Promises of Energy Independence

Experts say both men's proposals are a far cry from achieving freedom from oil imports.


Both John Kerry and President Bush have promised voters that they will make America “energy independent.” But experts say both sides fall far short of what is necessary for energy independence in the next few decades.

Kerry focuses on conservation efforts, but most agree his plan is little more than an outline. Bush supports expanded drilling in Alaska to increase domestic oil supply, but the US has only about 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves. At current rates of consumption that would only last 4.5 years.

One independent study says the US could end the need to import any oil from abroad by 2040, but that would require a ten-year investment of $180 billion, and such steps as taxing gas-guzzling vehicles and providing government subsidies for low-income buyers of fuel-efficient autos. Neither candidate is proposing anything close to that.


In many ways, the Bush and Kerry proposals are similar. Both candidates support tax credits for consumers who buy energy-efficient vehicles, greater investment in “clean coal” technologies, the creation of a natural gas pipeline from Alaska, and greater funding for the development of hydrogen vehicles.

The main difference is that Bush would increase the supply of oil by expanding domestic drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Kerry opposes this idea and places greater emphasis on reducing oil consumption through renewable energy and government regulation requiring vehicles to get better fuel mileage. But experts agree that neither candidate’s proposal would achieve independence from foreign suppliers.

 Import Dependency

Kerry Speech
October 11, 2004

Kerry: In the last four years, the amount of foreign oil we consume has risen to 61%. . . As president, I have a real energy plan to harness the full force of America’s technology and make this nation independent of Middle East oil in ten years.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the Department of Energy the US consumed about 20 million barrels of oil a day in 2003. Well over half of that total — 56 percent — was imported from abroad, with 20 percent coming from the Persian Gulf alone. (See “supporting documents” below).

Sometimes Kerry speaks of becoming “energy independent,” which would imply a 56% reduction in US oil consumption, and at other times he talks about becoming “independent of Middle East oil,” which would imply a 20% reduction. Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address promised to promote “energy independence for our country.”

Currently the trend is toward more imports, not less. The amount of imported oil has steadily increased since the early 1990s, and the EIA predicts only a slight decline in 2005 due to high gasoline prices, followed by a resumption of the upward trend in imports. EIA forecasts that at current rates by 2025 the US will be importing 70 percent of its oil from abroad.

Kerry’s Fudged Numbers

On October 11 Sen. Kerry gave a speech in Santa Fe, NM devoted to energy independence where he said, “In the last four years, the amount of foreign oil we consume has risen to 61 percent,” which is not accurate. As stated above, the EIA reports that total net imports amount to about 56.1 percent of all oil consumed in the US — not 61 percent as Kerry claimed. A press release issued by the campaign indicates that Kerry used EIA figures on total imports, as opposed to net imports, which does not account for the 1 million barrels of US oil exported daily in 2003. In fact, the EIA predicts that net imports won’t reach 61 percent until the year 2013 (see “supporting documents”).

Kerry has repeatedly blamed Bush for making America “increasingly dependent” on foreign oil in the past four years. But the level of US imports has risen every year since 1991, long before Bush was in the White House.

Myths of Energy Independence

In his 2003 State of the Union address Bush told Congress “our third goal is to promote energy independence for our country.”  However, the President hasn’t talked much about energy independence since 2003, when his energy bill became stalled in Congress.

 President Bush
State of the Union 2003

Bush: . . . Our third goal is to promote energy independence for our country, while improving the environment. I have sent you a comprehensive energy plan to promote energy efficiency and conservation, to develop cleaner technology, and to produce more energy at home.

Kerry picked up the theme in a May 2004 radio address, saying, “we can live in an America that is energy independent.” But industry and environmental experts alike fault both candidates for framing an important debate on energy policy around an impossible, and some say foolish goal of energy independence. Severin Borenstein, the director of the University of California Energy Institute, told FactCheck.org that neither Bush nor Kerry’s proposal could achieve this goal.

Borenstein: I don’t think either candidate is serious about this because the whole thing on energy independence is a red herring. What’s really important here is to wean our dependence on the world oil market. Nobody is talking about short term action that would reduce our oil dependency, cut back demand and bring about that kind of immediate change in our lives.

Kerry Radio Address
May 22, 2004

John Kerry: . . . We can live in an America that is energy independent. . . We can live in an America that invests in new technology that will make us energy independent and provide good paying jobs for every American.

Borenstein also said the only way to bring about an immediate change is “an extremely large gas tax.” He noted that if Kerry really wanted to pursue energy independence it would require “a much more dramatic proposal than the gas tax he supported ten years ago and is now backing away from.” (As we reported last March, Kerry was quoted by two Boston newspapers in 1994 as saying he had supported a 50-cent-per-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax, though in fact he had passed up an opportunity the year before to co-sponsor legislation that would have accomplished that. Kerry says he’s against such a tax now.)

Robert Ebel, a veteran oil-industry executive who once worked at the CIA and now chairs the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Energy Program, expressed similar frustrations with both candidates. He told FactCheck.org:

Ebel: No candidate should be talking about energy independence because it’s simply not doable. I don’t care who is running, it’s just not going to happen.

Professor Robert Mabro, a widely recognized energy industry expert, actually went so far as to say talk of energy independence is “foolish.” Mabro is currently the director of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies and recently received the first-ever OPEC Institutional Award for lifetime achievement in energy economics. He told The New Yorker magazine on Oct. 11:

Mabro: Perhaps, in the future, we are going to have a hydrogen economy. . . But until we get there, to talk about energy independence is foolish. The two candidates, with due respect, are lying to the people, or they don’t know what they are talking about.

Another analyst, Jerry Taylor, the Director of Natural Resource Studies at the Cato Institute, a public policy center devoted to limited government and free markets, says neither Bush nor Kerry is proposing what’s needed to achieve what they promise. He told FactCheck.org:

Taylor: Energy independence as a goal is meaningless because it is just not a reality at this point. The only way to start to achieve it would be to dramatically increase the cost of oil and significantly reduce Americans’ consumption. This would require taxes beyond the imagination and no politician is going to propose this.

Ending Dependency on Foreign Oil?

Bush and Kerry also cite the need to become less dependent on foreign oil, and Kerry even goes so far as to say he will make the nation “independent of Middle East oil in ten years.” But experts say ending dependence on oil from Middle Eastern countries would still leave the US vulnerable to high fuel prices. Oil is traded on a global market and so even if the US could produce all its oil domestically, gasoline and other fuel prices would still rise and fall according to the world price. Carolyn Fischer, a fellow with the independent environmental group Resources for the Future, told FactCheck.org:

Fischer: On both sides, this debate is a red herring because it’s framing the debate around the concept that we just need enough oil to cover our own consumption. We are in a global market and if there is a shock to prices anywhere in the world, gas prices would still skyrocket here at home — even if we were not importing any energy.

And Ebel said Kerry misses the point when he talks about ending imports.

Ebel: What Kerry doesn’t talk about is that the US doesn’t sit in isolation from the world energy market. By ending dependency on the Saudis you’re not going to control prices at gas pumps here at home. Over half our oil comes from abroad, and its ridiculous to think we can substitute that in the next decade.

Domestic Supply

The Bush energy plan focuses on increasing the supply of oil by expanding domestic drilling in Alaska and the Rocky Mountains. But according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, in 2003 the US has about 31 billion barrels of proven reserves — or 2.7 percent of the world’s oil supply. If we relied on domestic reserves, we’d have enough oil to last 4.5 years at the current rate of consumption, assuming no more is found. Furthermore, this total includes sections of the Gulf of Mexico currently off limits for drilling. And Congress rejected in November of last year Bush’s proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. All the experts we contacted said increasing production would have only limited effect. Professor Borenstein, of the University of California Energy Institute, said:

Borenstein: We have to become less dependent on the world oil market, but this applies just as well to domestic sources of oil. US oil companies own the oil, not US consumers. Ending dependence on Saudi oil or foreign oil altogether will not bring independence. The only answer is that we have to stop using oil.

Kerry’s plan does focus on conservation, but Robert Ebel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says Kerry hasn’t been specific enough.

Ebel: If Kerry gets in office there will probably be greater emphasis on fuel efficiency and this is most important because the transportation sector is where the majority of oil is consumed. He has tax credits and sets targets for increasing use of renewable energy, but he hasn’t told us how he’s going to get there. What is this going to cost? How is this going to affect our lifestyle? These are the questions he should be answering if he’s really serious about this goal.

Carolyn Fischer, of Resources for the Future, credited both candidates for paying attention to developing a natural gas pipeline and clean coal technology, as well as investing in research for hydrogen-powered cars. But she said their differences seem to be “in how much they promise to fund.” Kerry pledges about $12 billion more for such initiatives than Bush has proposed, but she cautioned Kerry’s plan is still too vague to evaluate how he would accomplish his goals.

Fischer: Kerry has a greater emphasis on conservation, and addresses demand as well as supply. He focuses on improving the efficiency of automobiles, but doesn’t say how he plans to do this – whether it’s through tightening the corporate fuel efficiency standards or not. They’ve laid out the ideas for the big challenges, the devil will be in the details.

Energy Independence: What Would it Take?

 The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a nonprofit organization describing itself as focused on “market-based solutions” for energy issues, recently published a study commissioned partly by the Department of Defense that predicted the US could end imports of foreign oil by 2040, and by 2050 be free of oil use altogether. However, to reach that goal, RMI mapped out a strategy  far more ambitious than anything put forth by Bush or Kerry. It includes:

  •  A “feebate” system that would tax purchases of gas-guzzling vehicles and use the proceeds to provide rebates to buyers of more fuel-efficient vehicles.
  • A “scrap-and-replace” program that would have the government buying “clunkers” and sending them to the junkheap, while making bulk purchases of new, fuel-efficient vehicles to sell or lease to low-income drivers “on terms that they can afford.”
  • A $1-billion prize to the first automaker “to make and sell a serious number of highly advanced vehicles” getting greater mileage.

The RMI put the total cost of its package at $180 billion over ten years. That’s at least $150 billion more than either Kerry or Bush have pledged.


Supporting Documents

View EIA Overview of US Petroleum Trade

View EIA Projections to 2025

View BP Statistical Review of World Energy


John Kerry, “Harnessing American Ingenuity To Make The Country Energy Independent,” Radio Address to the Nation , 22 May 2004.

John Kerry, “Energy Independence,” press release , 11 October 2004.

President George W. Bush, “State of the Union Address,” 28 January 2003.

John Cassidy, “Pump Dreams; Is Energy Independence An Impossible Goal?” The New Yorker, 11 Oct. 2004.

BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2004, 15 June 2004.