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Energy Independence Predicted by 2035. But at What Cost?

J. Mijin Cha

During the Presidential campaign, conservatives continued to falsely claim that oil and gas drilling had been restricted during the Obama Administration. In fact, as we pointed out, oil and gas production is at the highest level it’s been in decades. Domestic oil and gas production is so high that the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted on Monday that the U.S. would overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s top oil producer by 2017. The agency also said it saw the U.S. becoming a net exporter of natural gas in just a few years -- by 2020 -- and nearing energy self-sufficiency by 2035.

IEA pointed to the extraordinary growth in oil and natural gas output in the U.S. as a main factor in the energy outlook. The increase in natural gas production is mainly from the fracking boom. While there are many benefits and reasons why we should be energy independent, doing it through fracking and a continued dependence on fossil fuels is a serious mistake for several reasons.

The dangers of fracking are well-documented. The process poisons local drinking water supplies, increases the risk of earthquakes, and damages the health of adjacent communities. The fracking industry is fighting back hard against just disclosing the chemicals they use, let alone stopping the use of known carcinogens. Building our energy future on the natural gas released through fracking continues the cycle of the fossil fuel industry -- big profits for a few companies while local communities face serious environmental and economic damage.

Moreover, as the East Coast still struggles to recover from Hurricane Sandy, using fossil fuels as the basis of our energy independence guarantees that freak storms will become the norm. The latest extreme storm is our wake up call: We either double-down on policies that help combat the worst impacts of climate change, or we resign ourselves to losing our coastal cities. I can imagine a future fueled by renewable energy. I cannot imagine a future in which the entire country, indeed the entire globe, loses their coastal cities.

The IEA report points out that renewables could become the second-largest source of power generation by 2015 and could close in on coal as the primary source in 2035 if support for its development continues. The rapid growth of renewables is a result of strong subsidies and continuing that support is critical if the sector is to continue growing. Currently, Congress has yet to renew the critical renewable production tax credits. Failing to do so will set renewable energy growth severely back.

The fact that energy independence for the U.S. is so near will be celebrated by many politicians. However, energy independence built on a fossil fuel future will not only be fleeting, it will do nothing to stop the worst impacts of climate change. We need to transition to a clean energy future and we need to do so now.