In a speech today at Georgetown University, President Obama called for a goal of cutting America’s oil imports by one-third within a decade. Like all efforts to wean Americans from big, bad imports, such a policy will mean we will all pay more than we need to for the energy that helps to power our economy.
I’ll leave it to my able Cato colleagues to dissect the president’s proposal in terms of energy policy, but in terms of trade policy, this is about as bad as it gets.
We Americans benefit tremendously from our relatively free trade in petroleum products. Like all forms of trade, the importation of oil produced abroad allows us to acquire it at a price far lower than we would pay if we had to rely more heavily on domestic oil supplies.
The money we save buying oil more cheaply on global markets allows our whole economy to operate more efficiently. Oil is the ultimate upstream input that virtually all U.S. producers use to make their final products, either in the product itself or for shipping. If U.S. manufacturers and other sectors are forced to pay sharply higher prices for petroleum products because of import restrictions, their final goods will cost more and will be less competitive in global markets. If households are forced to pay more for gasoline and heating oil, consumer will have less to spend on domestic goods and services.
The president talked in the speech about the goal of not being “dependent” on foreign suppliers, but most of our oil imports come from countries that are either friendly or at least not in any way an adversary. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, one third of our oil imports in 2010 came from our two closest neighbors and NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico. Another third came from the problematic providers in the Arab Middle East and Venezuela (none from Iran, less than one-third of 1 percent from Libya.) The rest came from places such as Nigeria, Angola, Colombia, Brazil, Russia, Ecuador and Great Britain.
Even if, by the force of government, we could reduce our imports by a third, there is no reason to expect that the reduction would be concentrated in the problematic providers. In fact, oil is generally cheaper to extract in the Middle East, so a blanket reduction would probably tilt our imports away from our friends and toward our real and potential adversaries.
In one speech, the president has managed to state a policy goal that is bad trade policy, bad security policy, and bad foreign policy.