Climate Compass Blog
The United States is moving toward meeting all of its energy needs from domestic resources even faster than was predicted just a year ago.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) said last year that the U.S. would become the world’s largest oil producer, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia, by 2017. Its new World Energy Outlook moves that up to 2015. The U.S. is already the world’s top producer of natural gas, a position it reached in 2012 thanks to an expanding supply of shale gas. The IEA sees the United States holding both top spots at least until the early 2030s and being energy self-sufficient by 2035.
This huge shift didn’t happen by accident, and it will have implications for both the economy and the environment.
America’s energy future seemed headed down a different path not long ago. In 2005, U.S. oil imports reached record levels, prompting President Bush to declare that America was “addicted to oil.” In general, dependence on foreign supplies increases the impact of supply disruptions. Note, however that oil price is based on global demand and supply balances. And while U.S. production is growing, global demand (particularly from Asia) has risen at a greater rate, leading to higher prices for all global consumers.
Since 2006, the United States has taken action on two fronts to curb this dependence on foreign oil: reducing energy use and increasing domestic production.
New standards for cars and trucks are increasing fuel economy. Also, blending petroleum products with domestically produced biofuels – ethanol and biodiesel – is reducing the total quantity of oil required to fuel the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, social trends such as telework, people moving back to cities and using public transportation, as well as an aging population have led to people driving fewer miles and consuming less fuel.
On the domestic production front, technological advances in seismic imaging, horizontal drilling, and hydraulic fracturing have made it easier and cheaper to get oil and natural gas from smaller unconventional sources. These include non-porous sand (tight sands), coal seams (coal bed methane), and most recently from very fine grained sedimentary rock called shale. Oil and natural gas are both obtained from tight sands and shale rock.
As a result, the EIA recently reported that U.S. proved oil reserves are just shy of 150 billion barrels, a level not seen since 1985. The Potential Gas Committee reports that technically recoverable natural gas reserves are now at 2,384 trillion cubic feet, which is a nearly 100-year supply based on recent consumption rates.
This new domestic supply is expected to continue to benefit the U.S. economy. Importing less oil and natural gas improves the U.S. trade deficit. Cheap, abundant natural gas is helping to lower the cost of electricity, reducing expenses for everyone from individual homeowners to huge manufacturers. Numerous companies have cited natural gas supply and price in announcing plans to open new facilities in chemicals, plastics, steel, and other industries in the United States, including $41.6 billion worth of industrial investments that are planned between 2012 and 2018.
While the growing U.S. supply of oil and gas is good news for the U.S. economy, it’s a mixed bag for the environment. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are back down to mid-1990s levels, in part because electricity generators are using more natural gas instead of coal, which emits twice as much carbon dioxide. However, there is evidence that low-cost natural gas is crowding out zero-emission nuclear power and renewable development, and this is not good news.
As we create a self-sufficient energy future, we need to include low- and zero-emission sources such as wind, solar and nuclear along with energy efficiency and carbon capture-and-storage technologies. We also need to ensure that new supplies of natural gas and oil are produced in the most environmentally sensitive way possible, including addressing methane leaks throughout the production, transmission, and distribution processes. That is the only way to achieve the steep cuts in heat-trapping gases in the long term to protect the climate.
Take a moment to absorb this shocking statistic: 34 million tons of food in the United States is thrown away every year. Reducing U.S. food waste by just 15 percent would help feed an estimated 25 million Americans, or roughly half of those who don't have access to enough food.
Globally, about one-third of edible food – about 1.3 billion tons – is lost (often due to inadequate transportation and storage) or wasted annually. Reducing food loss and waste would provide enough food to feed 2 billion people, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It also would conserve resources, save money, and limit pollution.
Most of us don't think about the tremendous amounts of water, energy and other resources that go into growing, harvesting, processing, and transporting food that might end up in the trash bin. Globally, the estimated carbon footprint of wasted food is equivalent to 3.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to the FAO. That’s more greenhouse gas pollution than produced in a year by any country except China and the United States.
If one is looking for clues from Warsaw as to the future of the U.N. climate change effort, probably the most telling is the phrase “nationally determined.”
Governments have set themselves the goal of a new global climate agreement in 2015. At the annual U.N. climate talks that wrapped up this weekend in Warsaw, they agreed on some of the steps they’ll take to get there.
The decision adopted in Warsaw invites all parties to “initiate or intensify domestic preparations for their intended nationally determined contributions,” and to “communicate them well in advance” of the 2015 meeting, set for December in Paris. It also establishes a loose timeline: by the first quarter of 2015 for those parties “ready to do so.”
This is primarily a procedural decision, a way to move the process forward. The reason it was so difficult to reach was that parties fought incredibly hard either to inject or to avoid substantive framing that would begin to define the shape of the Paris accord.
By the time they were done cramming clauses into the ungainly sentence at the heart of the decision, the parties had managed essentially to preserve the vague but delicate balance they’d struck in launching this latest round of talks two years ago in Durban. The 2015 agreement will be “applicable to all,” but its legal character, and how developed and developing country obligations will be differentiated, remain undefined.
Federal agencies trying to meet tougher sustainability mandates can make significant progress toward their goals by taking advantage of more efficient data storage and other information and communication technologies.
At the NextGov Prime 2013 conference, Scott Renda of the White House Office of Management and Budget and I outlined some of the ways these technologies can lead toward a greener government that saves energy – and money.
The first year of the 113th Congress (2013-2014) draws to a close with no passage of climate-specific legislation, but signs that some in Congress understand the importance of addressing this issue. More bills were introduced that support climate action than oppose it. (For brevity, we refer to all legislative proposals as “bills.”)
Here’s a by-the-numbers look at what Congress has done so far this term explicitly referencing climate change or related terms, such as greenhouse gases or carbon dioxide:
- 131 climate-specific bills have been introduced, surpassing the 113 introduced during the entire 112th Congress (2011-2012), and perhaps on track to match the 263 of the 111th Congress (2009-2010).
- 81 of the bills (62 percent) support climate action in some way.
- 31 bills are intended to build resilience to a changing climate, compared with nine introduced in the previous Congress.
- 30 bills have bipartisan co-sponsorship. Of these, 16 support climate action in some way.
- 25 bills, five of them bipartisan, would block or hinder the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Two such bills have passed the House, though are unlikely to be passed by the Senate and signed into law.
- 12 of the bills supporting climate action were written by Republicans, while eight bills opposing climate action were written by Democrats, showing that climate issues don’t always fall neatly along partisan lines.
- 7 of the 16 bipartisan bills that support climate action promote energy efficiency. The bipartisan Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill is considered to have the best chance of enactment of any energy measure in this Congress.
- 3 bills would block or hinder federal agencies from using the social cost of carbon in federal rulemaking.
- 2 bills seek to reduce short-lived climate pollutants.