The United States Oil Dependency
Originally written on February 3, 2001
by Angela Moseley

The United States is one of the most powerful, most influential, most wealthy, most dependant countries in the world. Despite all the power, and all the wealth, the United States still relies heavily on other countries for imports. One of the biggest imports being oil, also known as crude oil, or just petroleum. The United States uses close to if not 80 billion barrels of crude oil a year. The majority of this oil is imported from Arabic nations, but at a high cost. Even though there are oil reserves scattered through out the US, the current wells in service aren't enough to feed the country's huge appetite. Yet there are some un-drilled oil reserves that in theory contain enough oil to end the importing of oil from Arabic nations. Without oil, the US economy would come to a grinding halt. Crude oil has many uses, from car engine lubricants, to the heating of homes. Crude oil is processed into oil, gasoline, and kerosene. However it is has been around in the US since 1859, and even though alternative energy sources are being researched, crude oil isn't going to be replaced anytime soon. Crude Oil has been used in the United States for over 100 years, and has been cheap and widely available until recently. When did oil prices in the US skyrocket? Will new oil fields be located and ready for use soon? How long will this oil last?

In 1859 one of the first oil wells was introduced in Pennsylvania. After a short period of time the industry in the US began to grow rapidly as crude oil was refined into products such as kerosene. The US exported kerosene for lighting fuel. Towards the end of the 19th Century oil was refined into gasoline, to power new automobiles. Later in World War II another product was created called heavy oil, which basically replaced coal has a major energy source. At that time most oil companies were located in the United States, and exported oil for a profit. As a direct result other industrialized countries such as Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands began to search for their own oil sources. Britain was one of the first countries to buy oil from Iran. Yet during World War I the US still exported two thirds of the world's oil supply. Production gained a great boost when vast oil fields were discovered in East Texas during the 1930's. However World War II put a major strain on US oil wells, and as a direct result the US was forced to import oil from other nations. In 1955 the US still exported a large amount of oil to other countries, and despite the strained wells it was very profitable. The US along with other European countries provided the world with plenty of cheap oil, about a dollar a barrel. Despite the import of oil from the Middle East, and the export of oil to other nations, the United States was still self-sufficient. In 1960 the big oil companies of the world decided to form OPEC, due to cuts in oil prices. In other parts of the world oil usage continued to rise in places such as Japan and Europe. In 1970 most Americans had no idea that the US heavily imported oil from the Middle East. And no one saw the Energy Crisis of 1973 coming either.

The Energy Crisis of 1973 started when Arab oil producing nations began to cut back production and decided to embargo oil shipments to the United States, and other European countries. However the oil lost was only around 7 percent, compared to the world supply. Yet oil traders and some governments went into a wild panic, and began bidding for oil. OPEC nations, including the United States began to raise oil prices to eight times the original cost, compared to a few years ago, something that the country never really recovered from. As demand for oil decreased, so did oil prices. Unfortunately the receding prices weren't going to last long; as yet another energy crisis began in 1978. Due to a revolution/de-thronging in Iran, oil production/exportation slumped. As time passes old things came back into style, just as the repetition of the 1973 oil disaster, in 1978. As if things weren't going bad enough, a war between Iran and Iraq caused oil prices to skyrocket even further. In 10 years the price of oil rose to 19 times to what it had been in 1970. What did this mean to US citizens? Nothing but gas shortages, long lines at the gas pumps, creation of energy programs, and a push for alternative fuels.

Ever since the Energy Crisis of the 1970's oil prices have remained sky high, and the US now heavily imports oil from other nations, especially Iran. About 80 million barrels of oil are used a day throughout the world. Every now and then oil prices drop, then rise again due to demand. Yet the United States continues pay about $20 to $33 dollars for a barrel of oil, which 30 years ago would have cost less than $10 dollars. Of course oil prices would be much cheaper if the United States didn't have to rely so heavily on oil imports. In the late 1970's throughout the early 1990's an oil field near Prudehoe Bay, Alaska produced about 2 million barrels of oil a day. But by 1999 the production of this oil fell down to about 1 million barrels a day. Overall the United States uses 20 million barrels of oil a day, but only produces about 8 million barrels, the rest is made up with imported oil, from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Canada, Mexico, and Nigeria. Some US officials want to eliminate US dependency on foreign oil sources in the years to come. Dating back to the 1970's US officials decided to build up a "Strategic Petroleum Reserve" to safeguard against oil shortages, or other disasters. By 1999 enough oil, about 567 million barrels worth, was stored in the reserve. In a time of emergency this oil would replace imported oil for about 60 days. But officials continue to look for a longer lasting source of oil in the United States. In the year 2000 President Clinton decided to release 30 million barrels of oil from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help lower prices, and ward off possible oil shortages during the winter. However some officials think it's a mistake to open the reserves just to drive down prices for the short period of time, including the current President George W. Bush. "Let me tell you what I'd like to do: Aggressively explore for oil and natural gas on our own continent. I believe we need to open up ANWAR, which is in Alaska, and believe we can do so in an environmentally friendly way."

About 30 years ago it was discovered that enough oil lies under the National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to cut imports by 50 percent (which during that time President Carter passed legislation against drilling). But being a Wildlife refuge the land there is heavily protected by and it doesn't look like any compromises will be reached anytime soon. Conservationists are determined to keep big oil companies off of the refuge, while in turn these companies are eager to start drilling as soon as possible. Legislation is currently being passed to try and open up the reserve. Many speculations and rumors float around about just how much oil lies under the Refuge. A bill called the National Energy Security Act of 2001 is designed to drill about 8 percent of the Wildlife refuge offshore. According to the creator of the bill, Sen. Frank Murkowski the opening up the refuge would reduce oil imports to less than half. As stated before conservationists won't stand for the drilling of the refuge, no matter how safe oil companies say it is. Other groups such as members of congress, Native Alaskans, environmentalists, and scientists vehemently oppose drilling as well. There biggest concern is that drilling in Alaska would just be a short-term solution, and risking such a biologically diverse environment is just not worth it. "Oil development in the arctic wildlife refuge makes as much sense as chopping down the giant redwoods for firewood," said Jim Walton of the Wilderness Society. Other alternatives besides Alaska exist, such as drilling offshore from the Gulf of Mexico or off the coast of California. However drilling offshore is a difficult and dangerous process. And with the estimated potential of the Oil fields of the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge, oil companies continue to look at the area with only the greediest intentions.

Until the 1973 Energy Crisis only a few people wondered how much oil was left in the world. Determining how much oil remains is a very difficult question to answer a number of factors come into consideration. Yet the factors have been narrowed down to 3 main sources of oil, which determine the amount of oil remaining overall. 1. Oil, which is in current production, this includes refined oil, oil being shipped, and any oil that has not been completely used. 2. Oil, which is available via oil wells, this oil, has been discovered, and is either being drilled, or plans to drill are being made. 3. Oil that has yet to be discovered, this oil is only estimated to exist. 2 trillion barrels of oil, which includes oil in production and undiscovered oil, is estimated to exist. Once again the word estimated must be used because no one person knows the exact amount of remaining within the Earth. However with a worldwide consumption of 20 billion barrels of oil per year, only 70 years worth of oil are estimated to exist. However these estimates also change with time, the world has a whole had more oil 40 years ago, and used it greedily without concern for the future. Today there is less oil and still a growing demand, but alternative sources of energy slowly filling in the niche, that carefree oil consumption would have filled.

What does all this talk of oil discovery, oil production, and oil depletion mean? It took a crisis dating back to the early 1970s to show the United States and the world that critical things don't last forever. What does all of this point to? The need for alternative energy, and conservation. Alternative energy isn't easy to accomplish, but it is necessary. Relying less on crude oil, and more other sources of energy would make the United States less dependant. 2 trillion barrels of oil may sound like a lot, but it isn't. It took less than 200 years for the United States to deplete most of its oil supply, and the world isn't far behind, and the 70 years or less is a very short amount of time. Hopefully big oil companies and world governments will realize this and put more time and money into alternative, and renewable fuels, soon.

Return to Essays