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Proposing a U.S. 'Energy Freedom Day'

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If the U.S. imported all the energy it needed starting Jan. 1 until the day it could support its own needs for the rest of the year, on what date would it start using its own energy?

February 15? June 3? Sometime in August?

It seems an interesting question, given the talk these days of energy security and even energy independence.

Call it U.S. Energy Freedom Day: the day the nation has stopped paying foreign energy suppliers, an energy-burden analog of the Tax Freedom Day promoted by the Tax Foundation as the day on which the nation as a whole has met its tax burden for the year.

It's not a measure of real energy flows but rather an abstract gauge of the nation's energy production relative to consumption.

A completely energy independent United States would recognize Energy Freedom Day with New Year's Day, on Jan. 1. A United States that produces half of what it consumes could celebrate around July 1.

As proposed here, the date can only be known in retrospect, when the U.S. Energy Information Administration puts out its March Monthly Energy Review with the first estimates of primary energy production and consumption for the previous year.

Based on the new data, Energy Freedom Day in 2012 fell on March 1.

That is, the share of the year that's represented by Jan. 1 through Feb. 29, accounting for Leap Day — about 17 percent — is how much more energy the U.S. consumed than it produced in 2012.

Shale bringing the date up

The real meaning of the date is to be found in its historical movements.

For most of the EIA's 60 years of data, Energy Freedom Day was in January or February. The nation even produced more energy than it consumed for about half of the 1950s.

The date crept into March for a few years during the energy crunch of the 1970s, then pushed back up into February.

But in 1988, it slipped into March and kept on losing ground, sliding into April in 1999 and careening toward May in 2005, at April 22.

Since then, things have turned around.

U.S. energy consumption has dropped 5 quadrillion British thermal units, from about 100 quads to about 95. Demand is down due to loss of manufacturing, to lingering effects of the recession and also to energy efficiency.

Even more significantly, production has risen: up 10 quads, from 69 to 79. 

This is due primarily to the shale revolution's reinvigoration of oil and natural gas. They bottomed out together in 2005 at under 43 percent of the nation's energy production, but have come back in a turnaround that brought them over 48 percent in 2012.

That growth is turning back the clock — and fast.

In 2011, production of oil, gas and natural gas liquids came to a little over 38 quads, the highest level since 1984. In 2012, the three combined came to 41.5 quads — meeting the level of a full decade earlier, in 1974.

If it increases at the same rate in 2013, that will be the most the U.S. has ever produced in a year.

One of the primary sources of the nation's "energy insecurity" is dependence on imported oil. That has experienced a dramatic turnaround, with exports growing since 2001 and imports shrinking since 2005. Net imports of petroleum products peaked in 2005 and, by 2012, they were down more than 40 percent, to the lowest level since the mid-1990s.

Operating as we are in a state known for its coal, it has to be mentioned here that coal has lost volume over the past decade. Its share of the nation's energy production peaked at about 34 percent in 2005 — the highest since 1951 — and has slid each year since to just 26 percent in 2012.

All sources of production and consumption taken together, Energy Freedom Day leapt up an astonishing two weeks in 2011, from March 27 to March 13 — more than half of that due solely to the increased production in natural gas. In 2012, it came up another 12 days.

The last time U.S. Energy Freedom Day was so early in the year was more than 20 years ago, in 1991. It seems inconceivable that it would move that much again in 2013 but, if it did, it would be the earliest date since 1986.

North American Energy Freedom Day

It's a long way from March 1 to January 1, the day that would represent U.S. energy independence. What about a North American energy independence?

Canada produces more energy every year than it uses, at least since 1980, according to data from the U.S. EIA, although the difference is not enough to make up the U.S.'s energy deficit.

North American Energy Freedom Day was still in January as recently as 1984.

By 2005, the worst year not only for U.S. but also for North American energy independence, it had fallen all the way to March 24.

Assuming Canada produced and consumed as much in 2012 as it did in 2011 — not a great assumption, but the best data we have at the moment — North American Energy Freedom Day was on Feb. 6, still more than a month short of North American energy independence.

Long-term energy security

Energy security is determined in large part by the quality of energy planning, including diversity of energy supply and flexibility and redundancy in systems.

But by looking at quantity, Energy Freedom Day gives a snapshot of the gap between production and consumption and the direction it's moving.

Increasing production, many have pointed out with enthusiasm over the newly available shale oil and gas, increases U.S. energy security by bringing supply home. Energy Freedom Day moves closer to the beginning of the year.

Reducing consumption plays an important role, too. Rising vehicle fuel economy standards, the replacement of aging power generation facilities with new technologies, and improving building efficiency all are moving the date forward.

One could even make the case that reducing consumption plays an even more important role than increasing production, in the long run, by conserving energy toward future security.

That same point also applies to an important issue that is under consideration now by federal regulators.

Producers of the new-found supply of shale gas argue for the opportunity to export to more lucrative markets — a move that would incentivize more production sooner. But if a high level of energy security is a national goal, consideration also must be given to the possibility that spreading production out over a greater number of years could improve energy security in the long run.