Energy Independence Without Mitt Romney?

From Politico

By Andrew Restuccia

Mitt Romney promised to achieve North American energy independence if the voters put him in the White House.

But now, evidence is mounting that the once-implausible-sounding achievement will happen without him.

Tuesday saw the release of the latest in a series of post-election reports projecting that the U.S. is reducing its reliance on imported oil and gasoline faster than anyone had previously expected. ExxonMobil said Tuesday that North America will be a net exporter of energy by 2025, while the International Energy Agency predicted last month that the U.S. will surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil producer by the end of this decade.

And none of this depends on implementing the energy plan Romney proposed in August, which called for dismantling President Barack Obama’srestrictions on offshore drilling and handing states control over oil and gas production on federal lands. With those steps, the GOP nominee pledged, North America would be energy independent by 2020.

“Romney’s plan was not pie in the sky,” said Linda Stuntz, who was one of his top energy advisers during the campaign.

Obama’s supporters have been just as eager to see the president get the credit. “All-of-the-above strategy moves America closer to energy independence,” Obama adviser David Axelrod tweeted last month after the IEA report came out.

In fact, much of the energy surge is happening for reasons outside the control of the federal government — especially the boom in shale gas and oil production occurring on private and state-owned land. Republicans and industry groups repeatedly made that point during the campaign.

Then again, the newest predictions would seem to undermine GOP claims that Obama’s policies spell disaster for domestic energy.

“This was not something that either party in Washington can legitimately take credit for,” said Pavel Molchanov, a co-author of an April report by Raymond James & Associates that partly served as a basis for Romney’s plan.

“We think that net U.S. oil imports will be approaching zero by the end of the decade,” Molchanov said. “To be clear, that does not require any specific policy changes.”

Still, the president’s supporters say Obama can take at least a partial bow: Besides producing more of its own oil and gas, the U.S. is also lessening its demand as vehicles and buildings become more energy-efficient. And Obama policies — such as a sharp increase in cars’ fuel efficiency by 2025 — will further drive that trend.

“It’s very much his policies — especially when it comes to transportation,” said John Hanger, a former Pennsylvania environmental secretary who is now a Democratic candidate for governor. As for oil and gas production, Hanger told POLITICO, “his influence really takes the form of not getting in the way.”

Whoever gets the credit, the change in the nation’s energy picture is “an extraordinary turnaround,” Hanger said. “In terms of oil and gas production and supply, I don’t think anybody even five years ago was projecting this kind of extraordinary domestic oil and gas boom.”

But now, experts are increasingly in agreement that the boom is real — and will bring profound changes.

In its November report, the International Energy Agency said the U.S. will become “all but self-sufficient in net terms” for energy by 2035. On top of that, it said, the country will be a net exporter of natural gas by 2020, while North America will become a net oil exporter by 2030.

ExxonMobil’s energy outlook, released Tuesday, echoes many of IEA’s projections. The petroleum company said North America will transition from a net importer to a net exporter of energy by 2025, and will become a net oil exporter in 2030 and a net exporter of natural gas by 2020.

Molchanov’s report last spring for Raymond James said the U.S. could reach energy independence by 2020.

Molchanov said in an interview with POLITICO that his prediction is “less conservative” than those of other analysts. But he noted that all the recent reports on the issue say essentially the same thing, that the “U.S. is trending toward oil independence.”

The reason? Oil and natural gas production in North America is growing, while demand is going down.

“In a nutshell, we think that U.S. oil demand will continue to decline in perpetuity,” Molchanov said.

That’s good news for Obama, who, like every other president since Richard Nixon — not to mention candidates such as Romney — has made decreasing reliance on Mideast oil a top policy priority.

For decades, that goal seemed utterly hopeless. By 2005, the U.S. was importing more than 60 percent of its oil and refined petroleum products. But by last year, that figure had shrunk to about 45 percent.

During the Democratic convention in September, Obama said the U.S. could cut net oil imports in half by 2020.

Dan Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said Obama “does have a great ability to affect how much oil we use and the substitutes we use instead of oil.” Weiss added: “And he’s already done a huge amount to adopt the fuel economy standards. He’s also sought more investments in alternatives to oil.”

Exxon saw plenty of upside for the U.S. in Tuesday’s projections — as well as profound changes in energy markets.

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