At one point not long ago, the three issues of climate change, energy independence, and peak oil were being effectively used in conjunction to motivate discussion of the need for a domestic green energy industry. And for a while, that is exactly what happened. We have, after all, seen dramatic growth in wind, solar and geothermal energy sources.
But something else happened at the same time, quietly, in the background, when nobody was looking.
America’s fossil fuel industry, particularly oil and gas, compelled by two of these three imperatives, has exploded. We are experiencing an American oil and gas renaissance.
There are three primary reasons why this has occurred.
First, the rising price of oil has made it profitable to go after reserves that had been historically too expensive to access, specifically deep ocean oil, shale deposits and tar sands. Secondly, new technologies, like deep offshore platforms and fracking, have made the exploitation of these deposits cost effective. Finally, relaxation of environmental protections, going back to the Bush administration and continuing under Obama, have allowed the industry to go after these sources without fear of regulatory consequences.
It’s almost like the question of energy independence served as a kind of Trojan Horse for the oil companies to enter the conversation, even with wary environmentalists guarding the door. After all, we actually disliked those despotic regimes in the Middle East even more than we disliked the oil companies.
So now, according to National Geographic, the U.S. is projected to overtake Russia as the largest producer of natural gas in three years, and Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil producer in five. It would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago, to imagine that places like Pennsylvania and North Dakota would be considered energy capitals, drawing students out of college with high-paying jobs in the oilfields.
As a result of this incredible energy boom, the U.S., which currently imports 20 per cent of its energy, will become, according to the IEA’s World Energy Outlook, largely energy independent by the year 2035. And that’s a good thing, right? It is now not only possible but likely that we can deep-sea drill, tar melt and frack ourselves to energy independence in just a few short years.
If only these things weren’t such gosh-darned environmental disasters, it might indeed be a good thing. I guess nobody really remembers the BP oil spill anymore. That was so two thousand ten. Besides, it was a big spill, but we’re all still alive. Or the flaming water coming out of kitchen sinks located in the vicinity of gas fracking wells. Those people are getting paid anyway, or, at least some of them are. Or the toxic discharges coming from the tar sands and threatening freshwater supplies, much as the fracking wells do. These incidents of collateral damage, serious as they are, could potentially be ameliorated, if the developers were willing to take the time and make the investments to ensure that these resources were obtained responsibly.
But even if we could do all those things safely with no spills, leaks or releases; that still doesn’t change the fact that we have a pretty serious problem with carbon dioxide. Or have we, in our zeal for energy independence, forgotten about that, too? Those who study climate change keep learning more and more about it, and the more they learn, the worse it gets.
This all reminds me of a slick Las Vegas magician, who keeps talking and telling stories to distract you from what he is doing with his hands. Next thing you know, he has pulled a rabbit out of a hat. We’ve all been fooled again and we seem to love it. And what story is this magician telling us while slipping this particular rabbit into the hat? He is telling us that this new fossil energy boom will create prosperity and jobs. Regular folks can get paid to dismantle the planet’s temperature regulation system, which will allow them to buy large screen TV’s on which to watch the whole thing come undone. Meanwhile, the owners of these companies will probably get rich enough to fly to another planet.
Once upon a time, America was the moral leader of the free world. We stood up for what was right and acted in accordance with our highest principles. But now that we have decided to let the invisible hand of the market run things, we can no longer make that claim. We no longer do what is right. We only do what is profitable.
So now, with the climate crisis looming over us all, we have stepped up, not to lead the way out of trouble as we might have done a few decades back, but instead to become the world’s greatest producer of the root cause of the problem.
Is anyone else uncomfortable with this?
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
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