We Need More Than Energy Independence

Shifting support from fossil fuels to renewables will ensure not just a strong energy future but it will finally put us on the path to meaningful and effective climate policy.
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No doubt the new International Energy Agency (IEA)'s latest World Energy Outlook will be cause for celebration for the fossil fuel industry. In it, IEA points to the strong oil and gas production in the U.S. and predicts that by within a decade or so, the U.S. will become the world's largest oil producer, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia. By 2030, North America could be a net oil exporter and, around the same time, the U.S. will likely be energy independent. Natural gas is expected to perform even better than oil due to the increase in fracking operations and by 2020, the U.S. is likely to be a net exporter. Yet, instead of celebrating, we should take this news with a mix of caution and concern.

Energy independence is necessary for our geopolitical and economic future. However, energy independence built on doubling down on fracking and extreme energy extraction is not the path we should choose. The IEA report notes that half of the increase in production to 2035 will come from unconventional gas -- i.e. fracking. This is not good news. Fracking is a harmful practice. It poisons drinking water supplies, increases the risk of earthquakes, and causes severe health problems for adjacent communities. Not to mention the economic promises made by fracking companies to local communities never really materialize. Pennsylvania is still waiting for the fracking jobs promised since 2007.

Despite the lack of job creation, Pennsylvania is doing all that it can for the fracking industry. After gutting state higher education budgets last year, Governor Corbett said that colleges and universities could raise money to fill their budget gaps by allowing fracking on their campuses. The legislature also did its part by passing a bill to allow natural gas drilling near state-owned institutions, including universities. By slashing their budgets first, Governor Corbett and the state legislature left higher education institutions virtually no choice but to allow fracking on campus to meet their budgetary needs. To ensure this result, the oil and gas lobby spent $6.8 million lobbying the state legislature in 2011 and 2012. Given the resulting captive audience, it was money well spent.

Doubling down on fossil fuel production does nothing to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. The damage done to cities and coastal areas from Sandy is our wake up call. Without comprehensive, bold, and swift action, we can expect super-storms like Sandy to be the new normal. This reality is why our energy policy needs to be driven by something more than just the goal of energy independence. Our energy future cannot be built on the same sources that helped cause the current climate crisis.

Though the sentiment will likely be eclipsed by the thought of domestic energy independence, the IEA report very clearly states that there must be a more sustainable energy path that embraces energy efficiency and renewable energy development. Wind and solar power has steadily increased and by 2035, renewables will account for almost one-third of total electricity output. Yet, there is much room for improvement.

By 2035, renewables should comprise a much larger percentage of our electricity output if we want any hope of staving off the worst impacts of climate change. Sustained, predictable levels of support will help the industry grow and become more economically competitive. Subsidies to fossil fuel industries increased nearly 30 percent to $523 billion in 2011. In contrast, in 2011 renewable energy received $88 billion in subsidies.

These numbers should be reversed, at the very least, particularly because fossil fuel extraction techniques are well-developed and do not need exploratory support. Ideally, there would be no subsidy to an industry as well established as fossil fuels. Instead, that support could be diverted to emerging industries, like renewables, to further expand their development.

Shifting support from fossil fuels to renewables will ensure not just a strong energy future but it will finally put us on the path to meaningful and effective climate policy.

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