A new world of American energy independence

  • Article by: TOM KEANE , Boston Globe
  • Updated: November 29, 2012 - 7:42 PM

Remember when the United States once trembled at the power of OPEC? In a short while, we may be running the thing.

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Natural gas is burned off at an oil well east of Williston, North Dakota. Until pipelines are completed gas has to be burned instead of gathered for sale and distribution

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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The United States is soon to be awash in oil and natural gas, positively brimming with the stuff whose scarcity and unreliability of supply has plagued us since the end of World War II. It is a remarkable, stunning turn of events -- largely unforeseen just a few years ago yet now an imminent although still hard-to-believe reality. And the implications of this new reality will be dramatic too -- almost all of them positive although not without some risks. Remember when the United States once trembled at the power of OPEC? In a short while, we may be running the thing.

Last month the well-respected International Energy Agency declared, "A new global energy landscape is emerging . . . redrawn by the resurgence in oil and gas production in the United States." Within eight years, the America is expected to be the planet's largest producer of oil. By 2030, we'll be producing more than we need -- exporting, not importing. The reason is technology. Techniques such as hydraulic fracturing have been invented and improved so that they can now economically unlock the vast stores of oil and natural gas across the middle of the country. The flyover states may finally start getting some respect.

It's uncomfortable to admit this, but Sarah Palin had a point: The key to American energy independence is "drill, baby, drill" -- or perhaps more correctly, "frack, baby, frack."

Don't count on this abundance making for cheaper gasoline, however. Oil is a global commodity, and, unless the United States decided to subsidize its price, it will still sell to the highest bidder. Nevertheless, the fears of supply disruptions and embargoes -- remember the gas lines of 1973? -- will largely disappear. Should some country decide to block the Strait of Hormuz, it'll be other nations, not the United States, feeling the pain. (US law currently prohibits us from exporting oil. Even though it likely will be changed, we'll still make sure our domestic needs are met first before shipping overseas.)

On the other hand, these newfound supplies may get us a cheaper military budget. Why is the United States so deeply involved in the Middle East but not in, say, Africa? Oil. For at least the last 60 years, its constant supply has been a paramount worry: without energy, the economy collapses. But that policy, while necessary, cost us blood, treasure, and integrity. Too often, we sacrificed our ideals to support a local strongman who could keep pipelines safe. And the wars, both far afield as well as attacks on our soil, have been a burden.

What happens when we no longer need Middle East oil? Foreign policy changes. Conflict is reduced, and our goals can, one hopes, become principled -- less tarnished by economic exigencies, more focused on human rights.

There will be dramatic changes at home too. The states with oil reserves will see a huge bump in their economies (already shale-rich North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the country). The entire nation's economy will benefit too. With energy supplies and prices abundant and stable, business will thrive.

There are risks, two of which are obvious. Fracking can contaminate underground water supplies (and uses lots of water to boot). That's an issue of smart regulation, however. We already take huge risks with offshore drilling -- BP oil, for example. Fracking's potential impact is arguably less risky and also more manageable.

The other has to do with global climate change. The scarcity of oil ("peak oil" -- the theory that supplies are about to diminish -- is now, at least for this century, largely kaput) had the beneficial effect of driving us toward conservation and cleaner energy. With a glut of petrochemicals, will that push stop, causing greenhouse gas emissions to worsen? Possibly but not necessarily. The natural gas being extracted by fracking is actually cleaner than oil. Then too, every barrel of oil saved by conservation or alternative energy is a barrel sold overseas -- meaning there's an economic incentive for using renewables.

Those risks notwithstanding, our new world of energy should be a cause of great optimism. Many fear our time is over; the Great American Century finished. The renaissance of domestic oil and gas are of such magnitude, though, it may be another Great American Century is about to begin.

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