By Scott Tinker, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Dr. Scott W. Tinker is the acting associate dean of research at the Jackson School of Geosciences at UT Austin. He is the state geologist of Texas and recently co-produced the global energy documentary ‘Switch.’ He also serves on the Technical Advisory Council for BP.
Several years ago, I briefed a U.S. Senate hearing on the possibility of energy independence. “Probably not in our lifetimes,” I said boldly. “Energy security is a better goal.” That probably wasn’t what the senators wanted to hear, and as it turns out, in terms of energy independence, I may well have been wrong.
The concept of independence is deeply embedded in the American psyche. Our nation began with a declaration of it. But what does independence mean in the context of energy? Most would agree that energy independence is achieved when a nation produces more energy than it consumes – countries such as Brazil. So, how does the United States stack up?
Today, oil represents just over one-third of total U.S. energy consumption, and we import about half of that oil. One way to become independent would be to replace imported oil with a substitute. Easy to say, hard to do: hundreds of millions of cars, trucks, and planes run almost exclusively on gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel that come from oil. So why are we still dependent on oil? Because fuels made from it have physical properties – tremendous energy density, easy to transport globally and no solid residue or ash, making them nearly perfect transportation fuels. Just fill up in three minutes and drive some more! And all those fill-ups add up to about 10 million barrels of imported oil every day. Substituting something else will take time.
Biofuels and electric vehicles are evolving as alternatives to oil in the transportation sector, but we have a long way to go before they make a substantial dent. And, at present, electricity to charge all those new batteries comes mainly from coal, nuclear and natural gas, with wind and solar representing small (though growing) supplements in the electrical generation sector.
Another path towards energy independence is decreased energy consumption. Consumption has gone down in part because the economy has been sluggish. But a more pleasant method than recession is increasing efficiency. Americans could reduce by one-sixth the energy we consume today (equivalent to the amount of energy that we import) simply by paying attention. Turn off the lights when you leave a room. Don’t drive to the store for a bottle of water and again an hour later for a burger. Nudge the thermostat up in the summer and down in the winter. Insulate buildings, use more efficient lights, drive cars with improved mileage, or ride the bus from time to time.
But cultural changes take time. Meanwhile, there are two things we can do now to decrease imported oil: replace some gasoline and diesel with compressed or liquefied natural gas and produce more oil domestically. Technological advances, particularly horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, have allowed us to take advantage of natural gas, and more recently, oil, trapped in shales. To be sure, hydrocarbons from shale are typically more expensive to produce, but the resources involved are enormous: four or more times larger than conventional oil and gas resources.
And there is an important environmental benefit. The vast, and now inexpensive, supply of U.S. natural gas resulting from hydraulic fracturing is that s substituting for coal-fueled power production in this country. That shift from coal to natural gas, combined with the economic slowdown, has allowed us to reduce CO2 emissions by some 10 percent over the past two years, more than in countries with carbon taxes or cap-and-trade policies.
Yet you have probably seen claims that fracking causes water to ignite in kitchen sinks. Turns out, there is natural gas in varying concentrations in most ground water. In other words, many if not most of those sinks could be ignited before fracking came to town. That being said, there are local environmental issues associated with oil and gas operations, and there must be continued cooperation between natural gas producers and regulators to reduce these risks and improve what has actually been a remarkably good safety and environmental record.
It’s important to remember that no energy choice is perfect. All involve tradeoffs. Without hydraulic fracturing, for example, we would use more coal for electricity generation, producing more CO2, or we would use more nuclear power, with its attendant concerns. We would also likely import more oil for transportation.
So what’s my forecast now? Energy security is still an important goal, but that is a topic for a different column. More importantly, energy independence is actually possible, but getting there will require some of each of these: replacing some consumption with alternatives, cutting some demand with efficiency, and increasing some domestic supply with shale oil and gas. These changes will take time and effort from industry, consumers and government. But the potential impact will be remarkable.