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The True Price Of American Energy Independence

A gallon of gas costs less today than it has for a long time. Just last summer, we were paying about $3.70 per gallon. Six months later, the average price is $2.65… and falling. This may translate to $75 billion in gasoline savings for US drivers in 2015, says AAA. It could be a big step toward “energy independence.”

Michigan gasoline price, January 2015 (monroenews.com)

Michigan gasoline price, January 2015 (monroenews.com)

Energy used by US that is domestically produced (Bloomberg)Thanks largely to deeper and muckier fracking wells, the US now produces as much oil as we did in the early 1980s. Given these statistics, says Bloomberg’s year-end report on American “oil addiction,” you’d expect oil consumption to work out to about 2.5 barrels of oil per million dollars of gross domestic product at the Reagan-era ratio. But it doesn’t. In fact, current consumption is about 1.25 barrels per million, half the 1980s amount.

A telling 30-year chart reveals the ratio:

US GDP vs oil consumption (Bloomberg)

And economists at our Energy Department foresee 2015 gas consumption at the same flat rate as 2014, down below 9 million gallons a day (from a mid-2007 high of about 9.3 million)—and maybe even less. Here’s how they explain the discrepancy:

  • Vehicle fuel efficiency has increased by about 25%.
  • Retirement of the baby boom generation has reduced miles driven.
  • People in their 20s and 30s now prefer to live closer to city centers.
  • From baby boomers to millennials (Gen Y), public transit use has doubled.
  • Wind, solar, and other renewables have started to put a dent into fossil fuel consumption.
  • US oil production has exceeded imports since 2013.

The results, as graphed by Bloomberg:

US crude oil imports (mgd) from Venezuela, Russia, Nigeria; and from all OPEC sources (Bloomberg)

There’s still something wrong with these pictures, though. While Americans can be very proud of the steps we have recently made toward energy independence, aren’t we achieving it at a cost to the rest of the world?

Let’s start by forgiving ourselves for being the world’s largest consumer of CO2-producing fuels from the Industrial Revolution until a couple of years ago, when China passed us. We’ll generously admit our past and having made amends, proceed from 2015 with a clean slate.

With only one exception. Every day the scientific evidence against exploitation of shale gas mounts. In fact, researchers have now found its health effects extend to unborn children in utero. Even for those few who deny climate change and/or excuse socioeconomic manipulation, the problems associated with shale drilling also include disasters such as water overuse, groundwater contamination, air pollution, subsidence, earthquakes, methane release, and many other consequences, known and unknown.

The United States has now regained an enviable, economically superior position over much of the world because we have gone after elusive but profitable petroleum like gangbusters. We currently use it to replace other harmful fuels, but without accounting for all its own dangers. Even those who still refer to it  as a “bridge fuel” are excusing destructive side effects.

US crude oil exports (Bloomberg)And we’re not just the white knights (okay, gray knights) of American prosperity and energy independence. We extract enough shale gas that we can now afford to export it. This harms other nations in terms of postponing development of cleaner renewable energies and promoting instant gratification and chauvinist greed. Eventually, too, through the atmosphere, surface air, water, and soil, the poisons will come back to us.

Not only does the United States ignore domestic and world priorities by using and exporting fracked resources, but we set a horrible example. Shooting for energy independence, we hypocritically turn our backs on sustainability, develop toxic and increasingly costly extraction and production methods that developing nations can exploit at speed, if they choose to, and invest in frail partnerships like the joint ventures in the arctic that have become lost assets because someone crossed a line in the Ukraine.

Some estimators of projected US shale reserves — including independent analyst, author, and investor Bill Powers — see them declining much, much faster than the US Energy Information Administration estimates. Others see them peaking by the end of the decade, perhaps sooner.

So what happens then? So much for energy independence. Better to spend our limited cash on something that’s going to last.

 
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Written By

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."

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