U.S. Energy Independence: A Step in the Wrong Direction?

In this photo made on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, technician Sean Cline finishes up the conversion of a 50 litre, 16 cylinder, C
In this photo made on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, technician Sean Cline finishes up the conversion of a 50 litre, 16 cylinder, Cummins diesel engine with four turbo-chargers that has been converted to run on a blend of diesel and natural gas at the Cummins Bridgeway facility in Gibsonia, Pa. Oil- and gas-field companies from Pennsylvania to Texas are experimenting with converting the huge diesel engines that operate pumps that propel millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals down a well bore in the fracturing process to break apart rock or tight sands that trap natural gas. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

After decades of dependence on foreign, often unfriendly, sources of oil and natural gas to meet America's growing energy needs, there have been recent reports that vast untapped reservoirs of shale oil and gas in many U.S. states might lead to U.S. energy independence as soon as 2020, at least in the sense that we would export more oil and gas than we import. This dramatic change would certainly help reverse the huge trade imbalances that have sapped U.S. wealth for decades, and it would undoubtedly help grow our economy, in light of the many jobs that would have to be created to exploit these underground energy resources. In the long run, however, this seemingly happy development may turn out to be just what we don't need.

Now, much has been written about the possible negative environmental consequences of the development of shale oil and gas, and there are real concerns that these efforts might contaminate our freshwater resources (one of America's real competitive advantages, looking toward the future) and even cause geological instabilities that could lead to earthquakes and other undesirable consequences. But as an engineer, I know that all energy production involves some risk, and improved technologies may well mitigate these concerns to some extent, although they will never be completely eliminated. So although I am concerned about the environmental consequences of exploiting shale oil and gas, that is not my primary concern.

To understand my main concern, it is important to realize that both oil and natural gas are fossil fuels, which, when burned, produce "greenhouse" gases, such as CO2 and CO, which are now almost universally understood to be contributing to global climate change. The burning of fossil fuels worldwide is thereby increasing the carbon content in our atmosphere, which is resulting in an increase in average temperatures around the world and increasing climate instability. One early consequence of the increase in these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the melting of our polar ice caps and the resultant rise in world sea levels; indeed, low-lying areas are already threatened. And because the effects of rising carbon concentrations in the atmosphere are not fully seen for decades after the greenhouse gases are introduced, the ultimate effects of today's fossil fuel consumption may be much greater than we observe currently.

Of course, natural gas is less of a greenhouse gas producer when burned than is oil, but "less" now appears to be an unacceptable qualifier when the consequences of adding any additional CO2 and other greenhouse gases to our atmosphere look increasingly dire. So although natural gas might be a reasonable "transition" fuel as we move toward sustainable alternative sources of energy, the idea that it could be the fuel of the future for the U.S. is a fatally flawed notion.

In fact, this emerging American fossil fuel boom will almost certainly stem the development of alternative energy sources that do not generate greenhouse gases, because these new sources will keep energy prices low worldwide and make it almost impossible for solar, wind, geothermal and hydro sources of energy to compete. What's more, under this scenario the U.S. will garner great wealth selling oil and gas to developing nations with huge populations, such as India and China, whose per-capita consumption of fossil fuels is currently much lower than our own. As these countries move toward a higher standard of living for their citizens and resulting demands for greater personal mobility and comfort, their per-capita energy consumption will undoubtedly increase. The result could be an explosive growth in worldwide demand for these fuels that will drive huge new exploration and generation efforts, leading to ever-greater fossil fuel consumption. Based on what we know now, such a scenario could well be catastrophic for most life on Earth.

Increasing fossil fuel consumption worldwide is therefore something to be avoided. In that sense, America's possible reemergence as the world's largest fossil fuel producer may be bad news indeed. We need to do more than just reduce our dependence on oil and gas imported from abroad. We need to reduce our dependence on these fuels, period. True American energy leadership can only be shown by working toward the rapid development of sustainable energy sources that do not introduce greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.