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[David Ignatius] America’s bright energy future

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Published : 2014-01-16 20:03
Updated : 2014-01-16 20:03

WASHINGTON ― For decades, Americans have talked about “energy policy” as if it were the political equivalent of a migraine. The phrase connoted pain ― in ever-rising gas prices, costly government schemes and dependence on imports from precarious Middle East regimes. 

But recent developments involving energy production and technology have been so astonishing that they should puncture this long-running pessimism. The amazing fact is that on nearly every front, America’s energy prospects have improved in ways that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago.
In the energy marketplace, President Obama’s vision of an “all of the above” strategy is actually happening. Production of oil, gas and alternative energy is rising, even as demand begins falling for these energy sources ― all thanks to new technology. The market forces driving these changes are so powerful that even politicians probably can’t screw them up.

The changes in the energy picture were summarized for me recently by Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz. He’s a former MIT physics professor who, with his curly over-the-collar hair, looks very unlike the usual Cabinet secretary. I’d worry that Moniz was just blowing smoke, but he backed up his claims with extensive statistics.

Let’s start with oil production: According to a new study released this month by the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. is on track to pump nearly 10 million barrels of oil a day by 2016 ― roughly equal to Saudi Arabia’s output.

This forecast is much stronger than a year ago, thanks to rapid shale-oil development “as producers locate and target the sweet spots of ‘plays’ currently under development and find additional tight formations that can be developed with the latest technologies,” notes the EIA report. Oil production from shale reserves is forecast to increase from 2.3 million barrels a day in 2012 (or 35 percent of U.S. production) to 4.8 million barrels in 2021, (or 51 percent of the total).

Next, let’s look at natural gas, where production is expected to surge 56 percent between 2012 and 2040. Here again, the new factor is shale formations that can be unlocked by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” of the rocks. This shale gas will soon account for about half of total U.S. gas production.

Environmentalists worry that fracking may contaminate ground water. This issue is sharply debated, but what’s indisputable on the environmental front is that the flood of cheap gas is reducing U.S. use of coal ― which, in turn, is sharply lowering emissions here of carbon dioxide, which scientists see as the cause of global climate change. The EIA study predicts U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide will remain below their 2005 level in every year through 2040.

This American carbon reduction comes at a time when emissions are rising in Europe, Japan and other developed economies. By substituting lower-carbon fuels for coal, the U.S. has broken the usual link between rising gross domestic product and rising emissions. In America, emissions per dollar of GDP in 2040 are expected to be 56 percent below their 2005 level, a drop of 2.3 percent a year.

Meanwhile, technologists have found ways capture carbon dioxide through coal gasification and pump it into depleted oil wells ― allowing recovery of trapped oil. This “enhanced oil recovery” is now adding about 300,000 barrels per day, but some analysts speculate it could rise to as much as 3 million daily barrels in a few years.

Alternative fuels? Wind farms and solar panels may be a laugh line for conservatives, but they shouldn’t be. Since 2008, wind-power capacity has more than tripled in the U.S., and is now generating the equivalent of about 60 large nuclear reactors. As for solar, photovoltaic panels are producing 10 times the power they did in 2008, with the cost down from $3.40 per watt to about 80 cents.

Do you see a light bulb going on here? Maybe it’s from a “light emitting diode” or LED bulb. These are 84 percent more efficient than the old incandescent bulbs that generated more heat than light, literally; the LED bulbs also last about 25 times longer.

It’s an almost ridiculously upbeat story. Thanks to rising domestic production and falling demand, U.S. dependence on foreign energy imports will fall to just 4 percent in 2040, compared to 30 percent in 2005. And we haven’t even talked about the strategic implications of this energy independence and reduced vulnerability to Middle East turmoil.

It’s hard to give up our view of energy as a national headache, but these startling forecasts suggest the energy future is, dare we say it, rather bright.

By David Ignatius

David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com. ― Ed.

(Washington Post Writers Group)

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