The definition of “energy independence” is evolving. Up to recently, it has meant the U.S. producing enough of our own oil so that we were not dependent on other nations for our energy needs. But now we’re in a world of oil interdependence. Oil markets know no national allegiance. Globalization and profit motive are altering a once patriotic concept into this: Producing enough oil and gas so that we export more to our trading partners than we import. While this new energy independence framework may help some companies’ profits, it stands to hurt many Americans’ pocketbooks, water supply and overall health.
Fracking is an unregulated process that uses dozens of potentially harmful, undisclosed chemicals and millions of gallons of fresh water injected into horizontal drilled wellheads. This process has pushed the domestic price of natural gas so low that producers are looking to foreign markets — particularly Europe, Japan, and other points east — to boost profit margins. Companies are rushing to use this new definition of energy independence to justify exploitation of large shale-gas and shale-oil reserves in the U.S. Before we embrace this notion, we need to examine more closely the potential for harm to health and the environment and the dragging impact rising energy costs for both consumers and manufacturers will have on our economy.
What does the pursuit of this new definition of energy independence mean for everyday Americans?
It means continued use of billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and the water resources, which are destined to diminish from overuse and climate change, necessary to extract them. It means potentially devastating impacts on local economies and resources from fracking operations in the form of more air and water pollution and public health and infrastructure costs. It means priming the pump of climate change more so than we’ve already managed, which is apparent in our current weather patterns of late.
The train wreck emerging here in this business-as-usual approach is the tradeoff between energy, agriculture, manufacturing, and human need of our scarce water resources. We must carefully balance the demand for our limited water supplies to ensure all our needs are met, and our current energy system is extremely water intensive and wasteful, pulling water away from competing interests.
Rather than trot down this road blindly and assume that technologies can be developed, perhaps we should pursue more sound policies that address the energy challenges before us in a financially sound, effective manner. The American Clean Energy Agenda (ACEA), proposed by over 100 grassroots organizations with a total of two million members provides such a framework. These criteria establish a clear preference for technology-based solutions.
The ACEA envisions an electric generation mix comprised of technologies that:
1. Are affordable and have the greatest potential to come down in cost;
2. Use and consume the least amount of water;
3. Generate the least pollution;
4. Effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and,
5. Maintain grid reliability.
These criteria represent a public interest standard that takes into account not only up-front costs but also the hidden costs of electric generation technology such as public health-related costs of fracking, burning coal, or climate change. These hidden costs can be severe and if ignored can exact significant damage to our economy and well-being over time.
Applying these criteria will result in a diversified and decentralized electric grid that is much more efficient, clean, and affordable than our current system. Decentralization, such as rooftop solar panels, moves us toward achieving our other priority: energy system resilience. We can move toward a much healthier population with homegrown industries supplying our needs and the world’s needs. We must prioritize and incentivize carbon-free renewables, storage and energy efficient technologies.
Most importantly, we would drastically reduce or eliminate the tradeoffs between competing interests for scarce water resources. And we would become a world leader in meeting the challenge of climate change. This should be a goal and policy of utmost national importance.
Calls for energy independence appeal to Americans’ deeply held values of freedom and security. It is time for a forthright public discussion about what energy independence means and how to enact an energy policy that will free us from foreign entanglements and safeguard our health, water and environment.
Pam Solo is president and founder of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute. Grant Smith is a senior energy policy analyst to the Civil Society Institute and former executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, where he worked for 29 years.