Energy Independence for America Is a Worthy Goal -- But It's a Death Wish If We Do It with Oil & Gas


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Can we drill our way to energy independence? Republicans (and some Democrats) have long proclaimed we can -- and now a recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) says the U.S. may be poised to become the world leader in extracting fossil fuels like oil and gas, overtaking Saudi Arabia in the coming decade. The report declares that we could even achieve energy independence in the next 20 or so years.

While "energy independence" may seem like welcome news, it helps to dig a little deeper. "That doesn't mean we'll stop importing oil; rather, we'll be exporting so much coal and natural gas that it will offset our oil imports," writes Joshua Delaughter at Ars Technica. "Those imports will also be kept in check by a combination of increased fuel efficiency and expanded extraction within the US." 

He continues:

The overall conclusion of the report is that the world will remain addicted to fossil fuels for the indefinite future. This is in part because of subsidies. Around the globe, governments are subsidizing their use to the tune of over half a trillion dollars. That's over six times the subsidies given to renewable energy, and up 30 percent from the year before.

This is bad news for the future of humanity and our planet. A continued addiction to fossil fuels means catastrophic climate change. The IEA report even states, "No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2°C goal" (the line at which, if exceeded, many climatologists have warned will commit us to extremely dangerous planetary changes).

The problem is, the fossil fuel industry hopes to extract every last drop that can be drilled or mined out of the earth. And some of our elected officials are happy to lend a hand.

Lorne Stockman writes at Oil Change International: 

The tar sands industry has enough projects producing, under construction and approved to blow well past the climate limits prescribed by the IEA. Nevertheless even more projects are lined up for regulatory approval leading to a possible trebling of production capacity over and above the IEA limit.

Globally, the oil industry as a whole is also lining up enough production capacity to cook the climate several times over. According to one analysis, there could be as much as 110.6 million barrels of oil production capacity in 2020, while the IEA says that less than 90 million b/d is plenty.

Remember the Keystone XL pipeline that environmentalists (and many others) have been fighting to halt? This is why the fight is so crucial.

So-called energy independence is a bit of a myth in today's world where fossil fuels are sold on the international market. Just because we are able to extract more doesn't mean that the products stay in the country or help to ease fluctuating prices for things like gas. A July story in the Economist detailed how liquified natural gas technology means the U.S. may be exporting a lot more of its gas to the highest bidder. "Whereas American gas currently costs about $2.50 mBtu, European oil-indexed pipeline gas goes for around $12 mBtu, and in Asia LNG can fetch $16 mBtu or more," the article reports

Not only is the idea of energy independence misleading, but not everyone agrees with the numbers. A report from Food & Water Watch states that our projected amount of natural gas reserves are grossly overstated:

A popular claim is that ... the United States has enough natural gas to last it 100 years. However, Food & Water Watch took a close look at this claim and found that it assumes that the industry gets its wish of completely unrestricted access throughout Alaska, throughout the lower 48 states and all along the U.S. coastline. The claim also sweeps under the rug significant uncertainties that are inherent to estimating technically recoverable shale gas resources. ...

Even if the oil and gas industry is granted unrestricted access to extract any and all natural gas it can find, the current estimated supply is far from the energy panacea the industry claims. If allowed to write its own policies, the oil and gas industry will simply extract as much as possible, as fast as possible, for maximum profit, while fighting to prolong America's destructive dependence on fossil fuels. Then, once U.S. natural gas is gone, the global oil and gas industry will likely be well positioned to import foreign sources of fracked natural gas to feed this dependence; Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil, in particular, are invested in building a global natural gas supply chain.

There's also one other limiting factor that often gets overlooked when it comes to predicting energy reserves. It is not how much we have, but how much we can extract, and estimates usually take into consideration available technology like fracking, which has indeed produced a boom. But a very serious consideration is also water. Extreme fossil fuel extraction that is now becoming the norm, like fracking and tar sands mining, requires massive amounts of water. Water is a resource that is already in short supply in some areas (remember this summer's drought?) and is predicted to be even more limited in coming years with global climate changes.

So here's the conundrum: If reserves, like natural gas, are overstated, then we're banking on an energy source we don't have and the very next bubble to pop may well be in the gas industry (Ian Urbina revealed as much for the New York Times last year). That seems like bad news for investors, industry and workers, and the towns all across the country that have become the sacrifice zones for shale gas extraction.

But if we do concede to let industry go hog wild and frack, drill and mine anywhere they choose to maximize all the gas, oil, coal and tar sands that can possibly be forced from the earth, then we'll have destroyed our land, ruined our water and cooked the entire planet. And we still won't have achieved anything resembling energy independence.

When it comes right down to it, we can argue about how much reserves we have and how long they will last, but the truth of the matter is, we likely have enough to do drastic harm to life as we know it.

So what do we do instead?

"We should be looking to develop true renewable energy solutions and working to build an infrastructure to support them," says Food & Water Watch's executive director Wenonah Hauter. "Doubling down on ever more extreme methods of extracting oil such as fracking, tar sands mining and deepwater and ultra-deepwater drilling locks us in to ever more destructive global climate change. We need to remake the U.S. energy system now, and leave these fossil fuels underground."

We should forgo the quest for "energy independence" and think about how interdependent our lives are — on our neighbors (whether down the road or across the border) and the ecoystems we live in and which provide us with the food and water we need to survive. 

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