By William McKenzie
The Dallas Morning News
We’re hearing plenty about Republicans and Democrats exploring a grand bargain so they can reduce the debt through spending cuts and tax revenues. But we should be hearing about another grand bargain. The next one needs to resolve energy and environmental issues so the nation can capitalize upon a rare opening.
Here’s the situation: America is on the precipice of a major energy breakthrough. The Wall Street Journal heralded it recently with a headline that declared “U.S. Redraws World Oil Map.” By 2020, the Journal reported, the boom in shale oil production should make America the world’s largest oil producer.
Yes, the largest. And the Journal’s not making this up.
The International Energy Agency reports that shale production in states like Texas, North Dakota and Pennsylvania is big enough to let the U.S. surpass all other nations in oil production.
If this trend continues, the consequences will be enormous.
Think how many times the U.S. has been drawn into global hotspots because of the need for oil — or to protect supplies for our allies. Now, we could become far less dependent upon foreign sources.
We won’t become an isolated power. Nor should we. But we certainly can become more selective in our engagements.
What’s more, the surge of abundant, cheap natural gas that’s also coming from the shale production could sharply boost our economy. Mitt Romney talked about this potential during the campaign, but energy development’s impact on our economy didn’t get enough attention.
The drilling itself boosts local economies. The Dallas Morning News’ Alfredo Corchado reported Nov. 19 how shale production in South Texas created 48,000 jobs last year. Similar stories exist about North Dakota, another epicenter of production.
Manufacturers also will benefit enormously from continued access to natural gas. It will lower their cost-of-production, which will let them grow faster.
The environment could gain, too. Utilities are now burning more natural gas because it costs less than using coal. The shift is lowering emissions into the atmosphere. The Associated Press reported this summer that CO2 emissions are at their lowest levels since 1992, largely because of utilities burning cleaner natural gas.
It’s not often you see a political, economic and environmental trifecta.
But here are the worries about the shale revolution: The fracking technique that producers use to extract oil and natural gas from shale rock worries many opponents. North Texans know the anxieties well. Voices have risen up here to protest the environmental costs of the Barnett Shale, the geological formation that is the nation’s original mega-shale production area.
Environmentalists complain the production releases methane into the atmosphere. Ranchers contend fracking uses too much water. And urban residents worry about wells being drilled in metropolitan areas.
Even the father of fracking, Houston oilman George Mitchell, has called for stricter regulations. Mitchell told Forbes that Washington should tighten controls on producers so outliers don’t run amok.
What we need, then, is a pact that keeps the production going while answering the environmental questions. This won’t be easy, but it needs to happen. And it should look like this: Washington, state and local governments should find ways to make the drilling happen. New York state has put a moratorium on it, but that is a mistake. For their own good, and the nation’s, states need to encourage production.
At the same time, producers must take the lead in addressing environmental concerns. Encouragingly, Exxon Mobil and eight other energy companies recently joined with the Environmental Defense Fund to fund a University of Texas study to examine methane emissions from wells. And there are other ways to address ecological concerns, such as using brackish groundwater instead of freshwater in producing wells.
The bottom line is the energy industry has the potential to reshape America’s economy and global standing, just like the high-tech industry did in the 1990s. Openings like these don’t come around often. But we need a grand bargain between producers and environmentalists to reap its benefits.
William McKenzie is a Dallas Morning News columnist. Distributed by MCT Information Services.
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