For the last year the news cycle has been dominated by the alleged misdeeds of President Donald Trump. Unfortunately, this focus has drawn attention away from the most contentious economic and political conflict of 2019, namely the battle between energy and the environment.
This year, the United States will produce more oil and natural gas than ever. Our newfound abundance, mainly a result of the shale revolution, has transformed us from a huge net importer of energy to a net exporter for the first time since the early 1960s. We’re currently exporting about a quarter of our 12.4 million barrels of daily production, while exports of both dry and liquefied natural gas (LNG) have tripled since 2015. Because of new investments in liquefaction facilities and terminals, our export capacity will triple within the next two years, leading the International Energy Agency to predict that America will become the world’s largest exporter of LNG by 2024.
Meanwhile, a dozen coal-fired power plants were shuttered this year — including two behemoths in Arizona and Pennsylvania — bringing total closures to nearly 300 since 2010. A decade ago, coal accounted for more than 50 percent of U.S. electricity generation but today it’s closer to 25 percent, with gas-fired plants and renewables taking up the slack. By substituting natural gas and renewables for coal in power generation, America’s greenhouse gas emissions are 13 percent lower than 15 years ago with an economy that is about one-third larger.
Despite the economic, geopolitical and environmental benefits that have attended the shale revolution, early this year a coalition of House and Senate “progressives” proposed a “Green New Deal” to battle climate change through a rapid and drastic reduction in the production and consumption of fossil fuels and, ironically, closing all of America’s nuclear power plants that currently supply 20 percent of the electrons to the power grid with no carbon footprint. What is more, most of the current Democratic presidential candidates have proposed a ban or severe limitations on hydraulic fracturing, the technology that enabled the shale revolution.
Many other instances of push back against oil and gas have occurred this year. For example, the governors of New Jersey and New York vetoed a proposed pipeline that would have transported cheap and abundant natural gas from the nearby Marcellus shale play into Long Island and parts of New York City. New lawsuits have been filed against the Dakota Access Pipeline that went into service last year and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that has been in limbo for more than a decade. Environmental organizations and state regulators are fighting a proposed LNG export facility in Oregon that, if approved, would be the first such terminal on the West Coast.
Some cities, counties and states are pursuing lawsuits against the oil industry seeking compensation for their costs in dealing with climate change. And the mayor of Pittsburgh recently stated opposition to any new petrochemical plants in western Pennsylvania, the heart of the Marcellus.
Rather than political posturing, what’s needed today is a serious and realistic debate about America’s energy future. We can’t wean ourselves off fossil fuels in 10 years, a principal goal of the Green New Deal. For instance, over the last decade total car and light truck sales have exceeded 170 million. But fewer than 1.5 million, less than1 percent, have been plug-ins.
As long as gasoline remains inexpensive, electric vehicle sales are unlikely to grow significantly regardless of government subsidies. And even if we could magically convert all of America’s passenger vehicles from gasoline to electric overnight, the demand for oil would drop only about 30 percent. Heavy transportation and petrochemicals account for most of the balance.
Last year, renewable energy sources, including hydropower, accounted for about 11 percent of total U.S. energy consumption and about 17 percent of electricity generation. Though hydropower is unlikely to grow in the years ahead, wind, solar and other renewable energy sources will play a growing role, especially as they become competitive with natural gas and more storage capacity comes online. Already, some power suppliers are jointly marketing wind energy with natural gas as a backup.
Energy and the environment should be viewed not as combatants but as partners, as evidenced by the transformation currently underway in the United States that is improving environmental quality without stifling economic growth. Perhaps other countries should look closely at the American experience when designing their own climate action plans.