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Two Steps Forward

Celebrating our energy independence

Imports of foreign oil are at their lowest levels since 1967. But there's a dirty secret underneath those numbers.

This article is drawn from the GreenBuzz newsletter from GreenBiz, running Mondays.

Remember "energy independence"?

It was a battle cry, almost literally, in the United States back in the late 1980s, when imports of foreign oil rose from 26 percent to 47 percent between 1985 and 1989.

The notion that America needed to rely on foreign powers, some of which weren't particularly friendly to U.S. interests, to fuel its cars and keep the lights on — well, it grated against the top-dog, go-it-alone mentality that has imbued Americans' self-image for nearly a quarter of a millennium, not to mention making us more likely to be drawn into battles with oligarchs, ayatollahs and dictators around the world.

Three decades later, we've come a long way. Sort of.

In 2017, the amount of energy produced in the United States was roughly 87.5 quadrillion BTUs, equal to nearly 90 percent of U.S. energy consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. America's net imports (imports minus exports) of oil from foreign countries were only about 19 percent of U.S. consumption, the lowest level since 1967, EIA said.

That's progress, powered primarily by increased domestic oil and natural gas production, due in large part to, yes, fracking. As Americans prepare this week to celebrate the 242nd anniversary of their country's independence, this is noteworthy: We seem to be more energy self-sufficient than ever.

But it could be a pyrrhic victory. That is, even as we "win," we lose.

The dirty secret of our growing energy independence is that it is coming at considerable harm to the planet, its people and its climate. Fracking's contribution to water pollution is well-documented, including by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, even if the oil and gas industry still claims otherwise. And then there's the disturbing connection between fracking and increased earthquakes.

But that's just the tip of the melting iceberg. Fracking's problems go deeper than contaminating water supplies and rattling tectonic plates.

A significant problem is methane, which is essentially natural gas that leaks unburned during its production, delivery and use. Methane is a significant climate problem — 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas.

As activist Bill McKibben recently explained: "Any methane that escapes unburned into the atmosphere on the way to the power plant warms the planet very effectively — so effectively that if you leak more than 2 or 3 percent, it's worse for climate change than coal." His article's title: "Why natural gas makes global warming worse."

A 24-author study published last month in the journal Science bears this out. It concluded that if a coal-fired plant is replaced with a gas-fired plant, there is no net climate benefit for at least two decades.

And that's assuming we're talking only about small leaks. The Environmental Defense Fund estimated that the current leak rate from U.S. oil and gas operations is 2.3 percent, significantly higher than the EPA's estimate of 1.4 percent. Last year, another study (PDF) found the methane emissions escaping from New Mexico’s oil and gas industry alone was "equivalent to the climate impact of approximately 12 coal-fired power plants."

So, "energy independence" turns out to be nearly as elusive as ever. And while America's energy supply no longer may be held hostage by totalitarian regimes, it is still subject to the tyranny of other forces — in this case, that benevolent and capricious dictator called Mother Nature.

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