February 20, 2013 7:07 pm

Shale falls short for US energy security

The nation should not give up on renewable sources, says Bill Richardson

Every US president since Richard Nixon has trumpeted the benefits of energy independence and outlined strategies to end fuel imports, including investing in renewables, nuclear, biofuels and coal. But today, with advances in drilling technologies and the recent surge in the development of oil and gas from shale rock, the country is inching closer to the elusive goal. “After years of talking about it,” said President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address, “we are finally poised to control our own energy future.”

But we cannot let the desire for energy independence obscure the fact that there will be shortfalls in the future. Nor should it make us ignore the acceleration of climate change. As US fossil-fuel production reaches unprecedented levels, now is not the time to give up on clean energy ambitions. Indeed, now is the time to try harder to meet them.

However positive the impacts of domestic oil and gas production, such as increased economic growth, job creation and a levelling of the US balance of trade, two facts cannot be overlooked. First, fossil fuels alone cannot sustainably drive long-term US growth; and, second, the burning of hydrocarbons contributes to a hotter, more unstable climate.

A newfound abundance of oil and gas reserves can easily lull the US into a false sense of security. While natural gas provides a relatively clean, inexpensive option – and will play a larger role in our energy mixture – it is still a finite resource.

Furthermore even if, as the International Energy Agency predicts, the US replaces Saudi Arabia as the leading oil producer in the next decade, we cannot drill our way to energy independence. Today, oil and gas supply 65 per cent of US energy. But whether America’s hydrocarbon reserves last 20 or 100 more years, demand for those hydrocarbons will eventually outstrip supply. We must continue to diversify our energy mix unabated.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Middle East is an example of a region looking to a future beyond oil. Recognising that hydrocarbons alone will not meet future energy demands, and the realities of climate change, several countries are diversifying their energy blend with clean renewables.

Take the United Arab Emirates, which has the seventh-largest proven oil reserves. In the middle of the past decade, about the time when exponential population growth coupled with a surging national economy put a tremendous strain on its electricity supply, it began to build a renewables industry from scratch. Today, the UAE is about to launch a 100MW concentrated solar power plant in the Abu Dhabi desert, the largest renewable energy project in the region.

Saudi Arabia, home to one-fifth of the world’s proven oil reserves, is also exploring low-carbon alternatives to diversify its energy sources. It has committed to invest more than $100bn to develop 41,000MW of solar capacity in the next 20 years. That is enough energy to power roughly 30m American homes. And, like the UAE, Saudi Arabia is planning to build several nuclear power facilities to meet the electricity needs of its growing population.

The US is certainly moving in the right direction in building a short-term position of energy independence. However, as Middle Eastern hydrocarbon producers demonstrate, it is shortsighted to measure this purely in terms of barrels produced daily. It should be defined by how long that autonomy will last, and by the economic, social and environmental impacts of the sources used.

The danger, if America does not invest in more diverse and less carbon-intensive energy sources, is that viable technologies such as renewables become an afterthought and leadership in these fields will be seized by other countries. Last year, renewable energy investment in the US was down 32 per cent from 2011. Investor confidence remains shaky, with Congress’s inability to decide on extending federal incentives, such as the wind energy production tax, for the long term adding to industry uncertainty.

With US energy independence within reach, we are nearing a pivotal point. Do we rest on the short-term security provided by new-found oil and gas reserves, thereby delaying investment in long-term security? Or do we put clean energy at the core of energy policy and energy-independence ambitions?

Whether in the US or the Middle East, hydrocarbon-based energy independence cannot be the defining factor in any national energy policy. For these countries, and others like them, a diverse mixture that uses oil and gas as a bridge to a low-carbon future is the only way to maintain independence beyond the life of oil.

The writer is a former US energy secretary, governor of New Mexico and UN ambassador

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