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Cut oil imports by one-third: Did Obama set the right goal for the US?

Cutting oil imports by one-third by 2025 might be less ambitious than it sounds. A better goal, some experts say, might be to more strongly encourage alternative fuels to make oil less important overall.

By Staff writer / March 30, 2011

President Obama gestures during his speech on America's energy security, on March 30, at Georgetown University in Washington.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Amid a spike in gasoline prices and a bout of concern over the safety of nuclear power, President Obama called Wednesday for America to "finally get serious" about energy policy, and he laid out a specific new target: to cut oil imports by one-third by 2025.

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The president's goal drew applause from an audience at Georgetown University.

But it also prompts some obvious questions: How hard will it be for America to reach that goal? Is it the right goal to reach for?

On the first question, Mr. Obama's objective will require some effort to reach, but it's not as ambitious as it might sound at first. In his speech, Obama set the baseline at 2008, when America was importing 11 million barrels of oil per day. Imports are lower today, and the US Energy Information Administration currently predicts that imports will be around 9.4 million b.p.d in 2025.

The agency's forecast involves a lot of guesswork, but if it's correct then America would get about halfway toward Obama's goal without any new shift in policy or consumer behavior.

On the second question, many energy experts like the idea of America becoming less reliant on imported oil. But they also note that the price of oil, even oil produced domestically, depends on what happens in a global marketplace where other nations are selling and buying barrels – and where events in places like Libya or the Persian Gulf can have a big impact.

To some policy analysts, the president missed an opportunity in framing his objectives around imports.

"It's the wrong goal," says Anne Korin, who leads Set America Free, an energy-policy coalition that includes business and environmental leaders. "The focus has to be on reducing the strategic importance of oil" in the economy.

She points to Britain, where truckers staged protests over fuel prices in 2008 even though the country isn't reliant on imports. The more fundamental dependence problem is that transportation – a vital sector of the economy – is dominated by fuels derived from oil.

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