America’s ‘Oil Spring’ Is Bad News for Climate Change

According to a new report by the International Energy Agency, which monitors fossil fuel production in industrialized nations, the United States could become the world's top oil-producing nation by 2020, thanks to new technologies such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. However, increasing production of fossil fuels to capitalize on this "oil spring" will increase our contribution to global warming, a major contributor to this year's record-breaking drought and extreme weather. To mitigate future impacts of climate change, the U.S. must not only leave its fossil fuels in the ground, but also become a global leader in clean energy. 

Last week, the Los Angeles Times ran a cover story on the potential of new technologies such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to make the United States the world’s top oil-producing country by 2020, a net exporter by 2030, and a self-sufficient energy producer by 2035. The article cited key findings from a new study by the International Energy Agency, which monitors fossil fuel production in industrialized nations. 

America’s new “oil spring” will allow the country to once again stave off its “peak oil” tipping point for several years, according to the authors. 

“They said we couldn’t drill our way out of this mess, but we’re drilling our way out of this mess,” said one analyst in the article. 

It all depends on which “mess” you’re talking about. There’s no doubt that producing more oil from “unconventional” sources such as shale can limit the economic damage of high oil prices (though only to a limited degree, given the rapid increases in oil consumption among developing nations). 

But when it comes to the “messes” caused by record-breaking drought, frequent floods and wildfires, and extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy – all of which are being fueled by climate change – we are drilling ourselves deeper into the hole every day. 

This summer’s severe drought that settled over most of the continental U.S. could cost an estimated $20 billion in crop insurance claims.  Hurricane Sandy’s economic impact is still being determined, but early estimates put the damage between $30 billion and $50 billion.  Without sharp and immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, the scientific consensus is that the U.S. will continue to endure more frequent extreme weather events, increased habitat loss, and rising sea levels—all of which are likely to cost billions more.  

That’s the flipside of the future laid out by the IEA report. Unconventional natural gas and oil resources, such as those from shale or tar sands, often result in even more global warming pollution per unit of energy than their conventional cousins, meaning that a future in which the United States achieves energy independence through production of those fuels is also one in which dangerous global warming is ever more likely.

To make meaningful cuts in global emissions, the United States must not only leave its own fossil fuel resources in the ground, but also lead the way in implementing clean energy policies that foster development of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, energy efficiency, and alternative fuels. Energy efficiency, in particular, has the potential to cut the projected growth in global energy demand by half, according to the IEA. However, these energy efficiency resources will remain undeveloped without the leadership of industrialized nations such as the United States. 

It’s time to start devoting American ingenuity and resources to ensuring that we do not follow the trajectory outlined by the EIA, which is bleak trajectory for climate change.