It is getting hard to remember a time when US presidents didn't tout "energy independence" -- meaning freedom from imported oil -- as an urgent and achievable American objective.
"Let this be our national goal," said Richard Nixon in his 1974 State of the Union address: "At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need."
A year later, Gerald Ford foresaw a reduction in oil imports "by 1 million barrels a day by the end of this year" and complete energy independence by 1985.
In 1979, Jimmy Carter blasted America's "intolerable dependence on foreign oil" and swore: "Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 -- never."
Year in, year out, the quest for energy independence is one presidents never tire of invoking. What Nixon, Ford, and Carter were pushing in the 1970s, Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barack Obama have continued to push in the 2000s. And while the 2012 presidential candidates are sure to clash on many things, the desirability of reducing oil imports from abroad is not likely to be one of them.
But energy independence is a delusion. Greater efficiency may be a splendid thing -- all other things being equal, who wouldn't rather get more miles to the gallon? -- but far from reducing the nation's demand for oil, it increases it. Thirty-five years of CAFE mandates have not reversed the rising US demand for petroleum. In 1975, highway fuel consumption totaled 109 billion gallons, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The total in 2008: 175 billion gallons.
What is true of automobile transportation is true of the economy generally: Americans use energy far more efficiently than in decades past, and for that reason the more energy they consume. Paradoxical? Not really. "Efficiency fails to curb demand because it lets more people do more, and do it faster," write Peter Huber and Mark Mills in The Bottomless Well, their intriguing 2005 book on energy policy, "and more/more/faster invariably swamps all the efficiency gains." More energy-efficient generally means more affordable -- and the more affordable something becomes, the more of it society tends to use.
Whatever else might be said of the new CAFE rules, they aren't going to reduce our dependence on oil, imported or otherwise. Americans have been using foreign oil for a long time, and we use a lot more of it now than we used to. When Nixon was in the White House, the United States imported 6 million barrels of petroleum per day. The daily average so far this year is 11.4 million barrels. It would be even higher if the economy were stronger.
Someday -- maybe -- motor vehicles really will get 54.5 mpg. But "energy independence?" You should live so long.