Will Progress Distract From Conservation?

Tue, 2012-12-11 10:19

Cautious optimism might be the most appropriate response to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) recent release of its annual World Energy Outlook, predicting a global shift in the energy mix. The roles of both fuels and regions are changing.

The U.S. is projected to become energy self-reliant by 2035 due to rising production of oil, shale gas, bioenergy, and improved fuel efficiency in transportation. The U.S. is expected to surpass both Russia and Saudi Arabia as the top oil producer by 2020. New energy sources are expected to boost the U.S. economy, providing access to energy that is less expensive relative to the rest of the world. U.S. reliance on coal is expected to continue to decrease.

While the prospect of new energy sources, less reliance on coal, and energy independence is good news for the U.S., the outlook for the environment is not as promising. Is progress sustainable given the risks?

New Technology – Progress And Risk

New technologies, such as hydrofracking and horizontal drilling, are enabling the U.S. to extract large amounts of oil and gas from tight shale rock formations that historically had not been economically desirable to pursue. Fracking is a process by which a high-pressure combination of chemicals, water, and sand are injected into rock formations, creating cracks that allow oil and gas to escape.

fracking graphic
Graphic courtesy of Al Granberg and Propublica

Due to a glut in the supply of natural gas, prices are low. This has spurred an increase in the number of power plants fueled by less expensive natural gas, reducing U.S. reliance on coal.

Although natural gas is said to have fewer carbon emissions than coal or oil, it is still a fossil fuel upon which we are in danger of becoming dependent. The use of fracking to extract natural gas comes with concerns over groundwater contamination and methane gas emissions. Methane is a more potent polluter than carbon dioxide and is therefore of particular concern in determining the environmental impacts of natural gas.

There are also economic concerns over natural gas. Debates exist over spending taxpayer money to support drilling with potential environmental consequences and no guarantee of yield. Price volatility threatens to derail the benefits of record low prices that have made natural gas so appealing.

Important Trends and Shifts

As the U.S. reduces reliance on oil and coal, these dirty fossil fuels are being sent to other places, where use continues to rise and threaten the environment. By IEA’s projection, about 90% of Middle Eastern oil will flow to Asia by 2035. Coal mined in America is expected to end up in Europe and China.

Renewables are expected to become the world’s second largest power source by 2015, closing in on coal as the number one power source by 2035. Electricity demand is expected to grow 70% worldwide, with renewables accounting for half of new global capacity. In an uncertain political climate in the U.S., it is not yet clear if subsidies will be at adequate levels to support the projected growth in renewables.

Scientists recommend that temperature increases caused by greenhouse gas emissions be limited to no more than 2 degrees Celsius in order to limit potential damage. But, a recent report issued by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization indicates that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record high in 2011.

At the current rate of emissions, it is estimated that maximum carbon dioxide levels permitted for the 2-degree limit will be reached by 2017. The IEA’s World Energy Outlook points to energy efficiency as a means of slowing the damaging progression by about five years. "Rapid deployment of energy-efficient technologies would postpone this complete lock-in to 2022, buying time to secure a much-needed global agreement to cut greenhouse-gas emissions," the Outlook states.

Focus On Efficiency

It is important to remember that the findings in IEA’s report are based on an assumption of improved energy efficiency in transportation and the built environment, as well as the advancement of renewables. Strong policies and building codes to support vehicle fuel efficiency, green building, energy audits, weatherization, and development of renewables are critical to reaching projections set forth in the report and going beyond to protect the planet. New fuel sources have given the U.S. a chance to shift away from coal and oil and build a bridge to even cleaner renewables. True energy independence cannot be achieved without a reduction in the overall demand for fossil fuels.

Will the economic progress created by new energy sources distract from important efforts toward conservation, efficiency, and clean energy? Let’s hope not.

By Amy Malloy

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