Have you heard about the energy transition underway in the United States? My guess is probably not.
More than half of Americans are unfamiliar with the words “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking,” according to the most recent University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll. Among the 40 percent who recognize these terms, just 42 percent say they support the use of this technology to extract fossil fuels.
Yet despite being largely unaware of this technology, hydraulic fracturing has been reshaping the global energy landscape around us. In fact, just this July advances in horizontal drilling deep underground enabled the United States to become the world’s largest producer of natural gas (and oil), surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia.
The surge in domestic production has helped the U.S. finally achieve a bipartisan goal of the White House that has persisted for the past 40 years. Every one of the past eight presidents pledged to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Yet every administration departed with higher oil imports than when they began. Times have changed. When President Barack Obama leaves office in 2017, oil imports will finally be lower than when he arrived. It is not the result of his administration’s work alone, but rather the cumulative effect of decades of events that set the stage for our current natural gas boom the same one that many Americans have not heard about.
Government policies that began in the 1970s funded technological advances in drilling technologies. At the same time, high gas prices provided market incentives to look for new wells on private lands. More recently, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that set injection regulations did not include hydraulic fracturing. As energy expert Michael Webber explained, “It’s a rare instance in which markets, government and technology worked together with a common goal. And succeeded.”
And there’s good news. U.S. dependency on foreign oil has been decreasing. And another thing that most Americans don’t realize is that much of what we do import comes from our closest neighbors, Canada and Mexico. This trend is projected to continue thanks to the rise in domestic natural gas production, improvements in energy efficient technologies and reduced demand due to high prices.
The U.S. is looking more energy independent in the years to come, which raises a new question: If we have all of this natural gas available, should we export our now abundant natural gas? This possibility has turned more serious in recent months because of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Since then, the international news media have focused on the European Union’s energy insecurity. The EU is currently extremely vulnerable to Russia’s strategic interests. In recent years, Moscow has turned off the oil pipelines passing through Ukraine to the EU twice.
Just as hydraulic fracturing has enabled the United States to have the capacity to be a net exporter, Europe is looking to find the means to decrease its dependence on Russian energy.
An energy trade between the United States and the European Union seems like it would benefit both, but can it happen? That will be complicated. Current U.S. law does not allow us to export our abundant energy supply to the EU, but negotiations are now underway to change the current agreement. Still, even if the U.S. is able to benefit economically while helping the EU achieve a short-term energy security solution, that is not enough. We need to work together toward becoming less dependent on fossil fuels on both sides of the Atlantic.
Hydraulic fracturing is not a long-term energy solution, but rather a means to help us to transition away from carbon-based fuels toward alternatives. Improving efficiency while developing renewable energy technologies will ultimately improve global stability, reduce emissions and ensure a sustainable future.
Policy discussions regarding the export of natural gas and the construction of related new infrastructure are underway in Congress. Yet the public has been largely left out of the conversation. If we hope to advance our economic and foreign policy goals through the current U.S. natural gas boom, it’s time to get the public up to speed on hydraulic fracturing.
Sheril Kirshenbaum is the director of The Energy Poll at The University of Texas at Austin.