Barack Obama on oil imports


in Economics, Politics, Security, The environment

Compared with his 2004 performance, Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention the day before last seemed a bit lackluster. That being said, it was a more specific about the priorities of a potential Obama administration. Energy issues were touched upon a few times – the environment hardly at all – but that is probably not surprising, given that winning the election is the over-riding priority for him now, and talk of effective climate change policies is (sadly) likely to lose more votes than it wins. The speech only mentions climate change once, as one of the “threats of the 21st century” along with “terrorism and nuclear proliferation, poverty and genocide, climate change and disease.” The lack of elaboration demonstrated both the degree to which this speech was aimed at a domestic audience primarily concerned with the state of the US economy and the desire to avoid the mention of polarizing specifics when enumerating challenges – a tactic that was also used in relation to a number of domestic social issues.

One line struck me as ambiguous and potentially problematic:

[F]or the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as president: In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East.

If this just means shifting American imports from Middle Eastern states to those elsewhere in the world, this won’t be much of a solution for either climate change or energy security. Let’s say the US buys all of its oil from outside the Middle East. Even so, the world price of oil will largely be set by developments there: particularly expectations about output in volatile areas, as well as confidence in the ability of Saudi Arabia to moderate oil price shocks through reserve capacity. Since the price of Alaskan or Albertan oil moves along with developments in Kuwait and Iran as much as oil
anywhere else, the source of the imports isn’t hugely important when it comes to price or security of supply. If the non-Middle Eastern producers selling to the US can get a better price in Europe or Japan, the oil will follow the money.

A more ambitious and effective plan would focus on ending dependence on oil altogether, regardless of source. That can begin in areas where oil can be easily replaced at present – such as powering urban vehicles – and can progressively move into areas where fewer alternatives now exist. The pledge in the speech to devote $150 billion to developing alternative energy sources hints at an appreciation of the importance of a renewable energy economy. Achieving that requires altering the mechanisms through which energy is generated, transmitted, and used – not just changing the flags on incoming supertankers.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

. August 30, 2008 at 10:19 pm

Obama’s Acceptance, Annotated

Slate writers take a highlighter to Obama’s speech and tell you what it really means.
Edited by Chris Wilson
Posted Friday, Aug. 29, 2008, at 3:29 PM ET

Below is the text of Barack Obama’s acceptance speech Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention, as prepared for delivery. After the speech, Slate writers marked it up with their own notes, providing commentary on both the substance and rhetoric. Mouse over the highlighted passages to see an explanation of a phrase’s significance.

Chris Berry September 2, 2008 at 10:31 am

Oil is one of the most perfectly fungible commodities in the world. Who we buy it from has no impact on global consumption or prices. This is just one more example of Obama focusing on style over substance. He speaks eloquently about all of the things he promises to do, and never offers any specifics on how he will do them. Sadly, the typical American voter is so ignorant of the workings of our system that they believe him.

Milan September 2, 2008 at 10:56 am

I am sure Barack Obama understands the limited importance of changing the origin of the oil being used in the United States. The exact wording of his statement was dictated by political positioning: dovetailing his energy policy with his promise to extract the United States from costly positions in the Middle East.

That being said, it would have been better to emphasize moving beyond imported hydrocarbons entirely. Indeed, the ideal statement would have highlighted the need to move away from non-renewable sources of energy altogether and seriously begin the push towards a sustainable energy economy.

. September 2, 2008 at 11:43 am

Barack Star
Obama calls out energy and climate challenges in big convention speech

“For the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as president: In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East,” Barack Obama said during his nomination acceptance speech in Denver Thursday night. “Now is the time to end [our oil] addiction, and to understand that drilling is a stop-gap measure, not a long-term solution. … As president, I will tap our natural-gas reserves, invest in clean-coal technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power. I’ll help our auto companies retool, so that the fuel-efficient cars of the future are built right here in America. I’ll make it easier for the American people to afford these new cars. And I’ll invest $150 billion over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy — wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels — an investment that will lead to new industries and 5 million new jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced.” Earlier in the evening, Al Gore devoted much of his speech to global warming, and endorsed Obama as a man of “courage and wisdom” who offers “solutions for the climate crisis.” The night before Obama’s speech, Bill Clinton and veep Joe Biden both declared Obama the man to solve the energy crisis. Be sure to check out all of Grist’s coverage of both the Democratic and Republican conventions.

new in Grist: Grist’s coverage of the speeches by Barack Obama, Al Gore, Joe Biden, and Bill Clinton
see also, in Grist: Obama would make cap-and-trade program a top economic priority

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