Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Idealistic on Energy

An Obama ad says his energy plan will "break the grip of foreign oil." There's no guarantee of that.


Obama’s ad responding to McCain’s latest attacks on him includes the claim that his energy plan will "break the grip of foreign oil." We’re not sure what "break the grip" translates into in terms of cuts in U.S. oil imports, but we’re sure that Obama’s proposals don’t guarantee it.


The Democrats’ presumed nominee Barack Obama is fighting back against the latest negative ad from rival John McCain with an ad that attacks McCain for, well, attacking him. But he goes too far in touting his proposals.

[TET ]

Obama for America Ad: "Low Road"

Narrator: He’s practicing the politics of the past.

John McCain. His attacks on Barack Obama:
“not true”
“the low road”

John McCain. Same old politics. Same failed policies.

Barack Obama supports a $1,000 middle class tax cut.

An energy plan that takes on oil companies, develops alternative fuels, and breaks the grip of foreign oil.

That’s change we can believe in.

Obama: I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message.[/TET]

The ad, titled "Low Road," opens with a string of quotes from news articles critical of McCain’s claims. FactCheck.org is among them, and we’re quoted – briefly, but accurately – as calling the insinuation in McCain’s "Troops" ad "false." (It’s a false insinuation that McCain has continued to push all week.) Where Obama gets carried away is in describing his energy plan as one that "breaks the grip of foreign oil." Obama certainly hopes his plan will do that, but it’s not a given. His energy proposal centers on spending $150 billion over 10 years for research and development of alternative fuels and renewable energy.

But "it’s not clear what that would do," says Bob Pindyck, economics professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There’s no guarantee that spending that kind of money will result in breakthroughs that make alternative energy sources practical and affordable. Furthermore, "what does it mean to ‘break the grip of foreign oil’?" Pindyck asks. "Does that mean reduce oil imports by 10 percent? Fifty percent? Does it mean that we stop importing oil altogether?" That would be impossible within the eight years that Obama or McCain could be in office, given that the United States imports 65 percent of the oil it uses.

Could a $150 billion investment significantly reduce our oil imports? "That is not for me to say and I don’t think it’s easy for Sen. Obama to prove," says Joel Darmstadter, senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a nonprofit think tank that conducts research on economic and social science issues. Darmstadter told us that "it’s very hard to demonstrate our ability to [reduce oil imports] even in the long run, let alone in the medium term."

Studies on independence from foreign oil offer varying predictions. Last summer, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the National Petroleum Council issued a report, commissioned by the Department of Energy, that found the U.S. could cut its oil imports by a third by 2030 through the use of more non-petroleum fuels and domestic sources of oil, as well as by increasing fuel efficiency. A 2004 study by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on energy policy, was more optimistic, saying the U.S. could be completely free of oil imports by 2040. The report, partly funded by the Pentagon, also said that the U.S. could "save more oil than it gets from the Persian Gulf" by 2015, primarily by using new technologies. The nonprofit Apollo Alliance proposes spending twice what Obama has called for – $300 billion in federal money over 10 years, an investment that the group says could, among many other things, decrease transportation-related oil consumption by an amount equivalent to all, or at least half, of what the U.S. imports from the Persian Gulf.

We asked the Obama campaign what specifically the breaking-the-grip line meant, and we haven’t received a response.

–- by Lori Robertson and Viveca Novak


"U.S. Can Eliminate Oil Use in a Few Decades." Rocky Mountain Institute. Press release, 20 Sept. 2004.

United States, Energy Information Administration. "Basic Petroleum Statistics." Updated July 2007.

"New Energy for America, The Apollo Jobs Report: Good Jobs & Energy Independence." Apollo Alliance, Jan. 2004.

"Hard Truths: Facing the Hard Truths About Energy." National Petroleum Council, 2007.