It might not be evident from the prices at local gas sta- tions, but the United States is in the midst of an oil boom of historic proportions. Driven by the explosive growth in shale oil wildcatting in Texas, Wyoming, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Ohio, U.S. oil producers are increasing output at the highest rate ever. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that domestic oil pro- duction averaged 6.4 million barrels a day in 2012 and is expected to surge by 23 percent to reach 7.9 million barrels a day in 2014.
That record level of output is expected to transform the United States into the largest global oil producer by 2017, surpassing even oil-soaked Saudi Arabia. After years of handwringing over the cost of imported oil and the strategic and economic vulnerability oil imports propel, the United States may, remarkably, become a net exporter of oil by 2030.
That unexpected transformation will also yield higher tax revenues, more jobs and lower energy costs for other industries. It all sounds too good to be true. It, of course, is. Behind the boom lurk some considerable dangers.
Environmental impact. Much of the oil fueling the boom is extracted by hydraulic fracturing techniques, or “fracking,” a process more often associated with the boom, and now the glut, in natural gas. In terms of its long-term environmental and health impacts, fracking remains underscrutinized, but it has been associated with contamination of surface and well water, bizarre health effects on people and livestock, even methane-flaming water faucets and earthquakes. The burning of fossil fuels is also the primary driver of climate change and over time has a significant effect on human and ecological health. These environmental concerns must be evaluated without discrimination in balance with the possible economic and strategic rewards of greater oil independence.
Intergenerational fairness. In confronting climate change and issues related to sustainable economic growth in the future, Pope Benedict XVI has spoken of the need for both international and intergenerational solidarity. Just as the burdens of confronting climate change cannot morally be shifted to the world’s poorest and least powerful, neither can this generation’s responsibility to the next be discounted. The early 21st-century gas and oil boom in the United States continues a pattern of intense extraction and consumption of energy reserves that can never be replaced. It makes an irrevocable claim on a God-given resource now denied to the future. When U.S. politicians emphasize the national debt, many speak of an unjust burden on their children and grandchildren because of the contemporary generation’s lack of restraint. The same moral call to re-straint pertains to fossil-fuel reserves.
Planning for the future. While the oil boom may provide a welcome respite from the nation’s energy gloom, it is bound to be short-lived. Because of human ingenuity, resource extraction opportunities once considered impossible have become commonplace. But it remains certain that one day fossil fuel resources will be exhausted. Alternative, sustainable energy infrastructure must be in place when that day arrives. What will come eventually almost always arrives suddenly.
ExxonMobil analysts predict that oil will remain the primary global fuel through 2040, when natural gas will overtake coal for the number two spot. They predict that the use of nuclear power and renewable energy will grow, but renewable energy will still represent less than 10 percent of the total energy supply 30 years from today. That is an unacceptable outcome. The Obama administration has made confronting climate change a primary goal of the president’s second term. It should not allow this unanticipated oil abundance to distract from that commitment. Fossil fuels burned for energy contribute to climate change regardless of their domestic or imported origins.
The nations of Europe do not have the luxury of squeezing every last drop of oil and natural gas out of novel deposits like tar sands or shale. But the resource deficit in western Europe is not without a positive side. On the continent the inevitable alternative energy infrastructure is already emerging, while in the United States the matter is debated in Congress.
America’s miraculous boom in fossil fuel should prove a blessing, creating new jobs and economic growth across a number of industrial sectors that benefit from lower energy costs, offering a chance to reduce defense spending and move those savings into investments in human capital and domestic infrastructure. More important, it can provide a critical breathing space while the nation uses the revenue windfall from this perhaps last domestic oil boom to invest in the transition to renewable energy production. Of course, this boom could just as easily prove just another opportunity for short-term profit for a few, a transfer of risk to the many and oil-intoxicated indolence on climate change.