The myth of energy independence

Broken pumps at a Pennsylvania gas station

Broken pumps at a Pennsylvania gas station. The desire for energy independence in the U.S. has given way to a reality of energy inter-dependence, but some say energy companies are using the dream to chase profits at the cost of the consumer and the environment. (Jason Langheine/Flickr — click to view)

Guest column by John Fenton
January 15, 2013

The definition of “energy independence” is evolving. Up to recently, it has meant the U.S. producing enough of our own oil and gas so that we were not dependent on other nations for our energy needs. But now we’re in a world of energy inter-dependence. Oil and gas 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.

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.

What does the pursuit of this new definition of energy independence mean for everyday Americans?

Fracking is a process that uses dozens of potentially harmful, often 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 Wyoming and 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 of rising energy costs for both consumers and manufacturers will have on our economy.

It means the export to our competitors of billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas resulting in the possible overuse and contamination of Wyoming’s water resources. 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.

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 perhaps we should pursue more sound policies that address the energy challenges before us in a financially sound, effective manner.

A public interest standard must be established that takes into account the hidden costs of electric generation technology from gas such as public health-related costs and loss and contamination of water aquifers. These hidden costs can be severe and if ignored can exact significant damage to our economy and wellbeing over time.

Most importantly, we would drastically reduce or eliminate the tradeoffs between competing interests for scarce water resources. This should be a goal and policy of Wyoming and is of utmost national importance.

John Fenton

John Fenton is the Chair of the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

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Published on January 15, 2013

  • Inky

    Thank you, John, for spot-on commentary.
    One of the core principles of conservatism is caution, asking what are the consequences if society does such and so? Today’s conservatives are bit divided on this principle, seeking to block or reverse a variety of social changes (reproductive rights, women’s rights, gay rights). At the same time, conservatives tend to be entirely uncritical about technological or business changes, embracing anything that promises to make a buck for someone, without consideration of long-range or un-foreseen consequences. This is so bizarre that conservatives should be banned from using the word “conservative” because it no longer means anything, replaced by opposition to social change over the past century and lemming-like faith in “progress” that threatens to lead us all over various environmental cliffs, like climate change and pollution.

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