‘Energy independence’ on the outs

Forget “energy independence.”

Now the new catchphrase in the nation’s capital is “energy security.”

The term has replaced “energy independence” as government officials and industry leaders tout new predictions that the U.S. is on track to soon become a net exporter of oil and gas.

For instance, when Exxon Mobil rolled out its 2013 energy outlook earlier this week, the company deliberately avoided any talk of “independence.”

That was “by design,” said Kenneth Cohen, the company’s vice president of public and government affairs.

“We think in terms of energy security,” he added. By contrast, “the term ‘independence’ implies isolationism, protectionism and is self-defeating.”

Officials with the government’s Energy Information Administration also steered clear of the phrase early this month, when the agency revealed its own predictions that the United States could produce more natural gas than it needs as soon as 2016.

Rayola Dougher, a senior economist at the American Petroleum Institute, says the shift shows people recognize that the even with massive domestic energy production, the United States will remain connected to a global commodities market.

After all, abundant domestic supplies don’t guarantee a drop in the cost of energy, or that the United States will somehow be insulated from oil prices that are set on a world market and subject to a complex mix of factors outside the country’s control. Even if net U.S. or North American oil imports plummeted to zero, the United States would still be connected to that global market.

Dougher said the term “energy independence,” which was bandied about by both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, on the campaign trail this year, has thrown off some people.

“Some groups think of ‘energy independence’ as ‘oh, good, we can keep all the oil to ourselves, and the price will come down for us, and we won’t have to rely on anyone else,’” she said. “And that’s not really true.”

“We’re not going to secede from the world market,” Dougher added. “We’re always going to be buying and selling world commodities — oil and gas and anything else out there. But we can be a net exporter.”

And that will still have an effect, Dougher stressed. “If we can bring out a lot more energy, we’re shifting the balance of energy power to stable regions of the world.”

Michael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, has argued that the notion of real energy independence isn’t just adding up total imports and exports to get to zero.

“So long as you are part of a global oil market, your economy remains vulnerable to unrest in that market, even if you are buying oil from yourself,” Levi said.

For instance, OPEC countries could cut their production to offset any spikes in U.S. oil, ensuring they still have power of the global price of crude.